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What does Taiwan really want?

It all started with an innocuous question from the public in an open forum:

a student asked the president Joe biden if he was going to commit to protecting Taiwan from China.

Biden’s answer – a quick “yes” and then another “yes” again when pressed by a CNN anchor – immediately became newsflash around the world.

Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during a commemoration of the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. AP Photo / Andy Wong, File.

Almost instantly, the White House moved to deny the comments.

The foreign policy scandal was brief, but it highlighted how serious the risks are with the Taiwan issue.

Relations between China and Taiwan are at their worst in decades.

Military provocations are on the rise:

In recent weeks, a record number of Chinese warplanes have crossed Taiwan’s air defense zone, a stark reminder of Beijing’s desire to absorb Taiwan.

Some US lawmakers – from both parties, echoed by former officials and commentators – have asked Washington to commit to a firm security guarantee for Taipei and to abandon the long American policy of strategic ambiguity or at least seriously considering doing so, which leaves open the question of whether the United States will help Taiwan in the event of an attack from China.

Therefore, when Biden was ambiguous in assuring that the United States was committed to defending Taiwan, the White House was quick to clarify that its policy “Had not changed”.

Regardless of whether Biden was simply misrepresenting himself or was showing his resolve to China, the suggestion of a shift toward strategic clarity elicited a cautious response from Taiwan:

the president’s office warned that Taiwan was not going to “take hasty measuresWhen you receive support.

This should come as no surprise.

However, the will of the Taiwanese people is lost in the rhetoric inside Washington.

Many outsiders – including me – are giving their opinion on what should be done with Taiwan.

Few people seem to be listening to what Taiwan is actually saying.

I study public opinion and foreign policy, specializing in China and Taiwan, and I have noticed that the nervousness around the Taiwan Strait has skyrocketed.

Decades of polls and heated debates on Taiwan’s democracy provide insights into the true wish from Taiwan.

It is evident that hardly anyone in the people of Taiwan wants the unification with China.

They want to get on with their lives as they see fit, under a government elected in a democracy.

In fact, the majority of Taiwan – 87 percent, according to a recent survey – want to keep a certain status quo.

The status quo implies maintaining de facto independence, but avoiding retaliation from China.

In addition, the percentage of Taiwanese who want to maintain the status quo of indefinitely.

It is the best possible scenario in a sea of ​​unenviable options.

Of course, if there were no risk of an invasion from China, the majority would choose independence.

However, the president of China, Xi Jinping, has made it clear that such a statement is not available for Taiwan.

Therefore, the status quo is pragmatic… and preferable.

Taipei’s response to Beijing’s threats has been firm, but the island nation has advised against unilateral changes to the status quo.

The President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, requested to “keep it” in his recent National Day speech, when he said:

“We will do our best to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally altered.”

Although for Taiwan the “status quo” is not a static idea, the broad contours of Chinese, American and Taiwanese policies more or less define what has been accepted as the status quo.

Taiwan can exist as an independent state, with its own elections, judiciary, currency, and military.

China does not renounce its right over Taiwan and other countries avoid recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state, instead of seeking informal relations with the island.

The United States sells weapons to Taiwan for self-defense and does not clarify whether it will defend Taiwan if China invades.

This serves to talk out to Beijing without provoking it.

This works for Taiwan.

“Tsai has set the standards,” read a recent editorial by The Taipei Times.

“There is no need for Taiwan to declare its independence.”

Like Tsai, senior party figures in Taiwan are calling for international support, but at the same time urging caution in the face of escalation.

Influential people in Taiwan have advised against warmongering and threats of military action.

All of this serves to explain why Biden’s comments last week raised such alarm.

A Beijing official warned that the United States should “be careful with his words ”.

China is likely to interpret a shift from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity as a sign that Washington intends to support a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence.

So Xi could claim that he had no choice but to act with the military.

The lives of millions of Taiwanese would be at risk.

Let’s be clear, China’s aggression is threatening lives in Taiwan.

Increasing air raids are a challenge to the status quo.

In response, Taiwanese leaders have emphasized the national resilience while they have asked their partners to advocate for their cause in international institutions.

Instead of requesting an explicit guarantee of mutual defense, Taipei is seeking more cooperation on the issue of security, economic ties and opportunities to enter regional trade initiatives.

These maneuvers are not an attempt to change the status quo, but rather a response to China’s efforts to tip the balance in its favor.

Applications from Taiwan are calculated and moderate, designed with the purpose of creating more space for your existenceto without crossing the borders of Beijing.

The United States plays an important role in communicating that threats from China will not be tolerated without cost.

Closer relations between Taiwan and the United States can serve to keep the peace and are supported by the majority of the people in Taiwan.

Three-quarters want the United States to help Taiwan participate in international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Signs from Washington regarding Tokyo, Canberra and Seoul show Beijing that Taipei is not isolated.

However, the risk of a miscalculation is high.

In this tense moment, America’s response must be to follow Taiwan’s lead.

Otherwise, the risk is that several nations act urgently to accommodate their own national frameworks and move ever closer to the scene of a catastrophic war, that does not take into account the people of Taiwan, or consider Taiwan as a problem to be solved, a source of tension or the most dangerous place on Earth and not a peaceful democracy of 24 million people.

Of course, if Beijing takes hostile action, anything could happen.

Tsai’s moderate course would no longer be sustainable, and Taipei would have to turn to Washington for unequivocal support.

But this scenario is unlikely to occur in the short term.

Defense authorities in the United States and Taiwan agree that China may be lacking several years to have the ability to invade Taiwan.

Helping Taiwan requires understanding the history and political aspirations of the Taiwanese people.

Yes, Beijing’s provocative actions need calculated responses.

However, those who want to help should follow the example of the people they claim to defend.

Natasha Kassam is the director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a former Australian diplomat in Beijing.

c.2021 The New York Times Company


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