President Ma Ying-jeou, accused by The Economist of bumbling his way through the presidency and chided for his poor communication skills, is currently receiving a great deal of public criticism for his handling of the Taiwanese “Sunflower” movement. The students and civil society activists began to occupy the Legislative Yuan on March 18 in response to the ruling party’s attempt to push the controversial Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services through committee without debate. President Ma Ying-jeou’s former national-security adviser, Rex How, spoke to public concerns when he stated that “In just the same way as those who are opposed to the nuclear power plant worry about the risks associated with atomic power, those who oppose the service trade agreement worry about the agreement’s impact on the nation, its industries and society.”
According to Democratic Progressive Party legislator Bi-khim Hsiao, “While economic stagnation, the growing wealth disparity, falling wages and skyrocketing housing costs in Taiwan have been fueling social tension and discontent in the country, the catalyst for the student action was the KMT party’s attempt to force the trade agreement through the legislative committee without any review…. There were no prior consultations with the various affected industry sectors before the agreement was signed. The parliament was neither briefed nor informed in advance, and the government even attempted to implement the agreement without parliamentary ratification. It was only after protests by the legislature that enabled an inter-party deal that promised to hold public hearings, followed by review and vote clause-by-clause, item-by-item, in the parliament.” She adds that “Aside from the lack of transparency and the government’s disregard for democratic procedures, critics are worried that the agreement would open the door to greater Chinese economic and social influence in Taiwan.”
Rather than engage in meaningful dialogue with the student and civil society activists, the Ma administration has refused to cede ground and calls upon the demonstrators to immediately end their 'illegal occupation' of the Legislative Yuan.
Congressional delegations and other officials visiting Taiwan in 2014 should consider proactively requesting meetings with opposition parties, NGOs, and civil-society groups based throughout the country. The American Institute in Taiwan could help facilitate such meetings. Taiwan’s democracy has made great strides since martial law was lifted in 1987. However, the United States should still speak out whenever it can to facilitate the further deepening and consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy.
Reopen Blocked Channels of Communication with Taiwan Officials
In March 2008, candidate Obama called to “reopen blocked channels of communication with Taiwan officials.” The United States should encourage visits by cabinet-level officials between the United States and Taiwan to foster commercial, technological, and people-to-people exchanges. The U.S. government should also lift restrictions on visits by senior Taiwanese leaders to the United States; permit bilateral meetings between high-level officials in all U.S. executive departments; and allow senior officials of the departments of State and Defense to travel to Taiwan on official business. In order to promote clearer, more direct communication between leaders in the United States and Taiwan, President Obama should reopen these blocked channels of communication.
Facilitate Taiwan’s Meaningful Participation in International Organizations
Taiwan’s democratic experience, scientific and technological expertise, world-class health care system, and humanitarian assistance have made valuable contributions to people around the world. If Taiwan’s voice is extinguished in the international community, the United States will lose an essential democratic economic and security partner. It is in the U.S. interest to expand Taiwan’s international space by facilitating Taiwan's participation as a member or observer in existing international organizations such as the United Nations, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although some progress was made last year regarding Taiwanese participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), China insisted that Taiwan participate as a “guest” at the 38th ICAO Assembly. The United States had hoped that Taiwan could participate as an observer. Ad-hoc invitations from China that require annual approval set a poor precedent for consistent, meaningful Taiwanese participation.
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia expert Bonnie S. Glaser wrote an excellent article for The National Interest regarding the current state of Taiwanese participation in international organizations. She argues that the “United States should work with other nations to revise or amend the charters or rules of membership for key international organizations so that Taiwan can join in some capacity without raising sovereignty matters. Legal obstacles to Taiwan’s expanded participation can thereby be removed and opportunities can be created for non-sovereign entities to become observers or gain some official standing. This would not fully resolve the issue of Taiwan’s international space, but it would be a helpful interim measure that would enable Taiwan to increase its participation while its international status remains ambiguous.”
Furthermore, Washington should “take concrete steps to support Taiwan’s expanded role in organizations in which it is already a party but has difficulty security meaningful participation, such as the WHO. In discussions with Beijing, US officials should emphasize that China hurts its own goals with Taiwan by its grudging approach to the issue of Taiwan’s international space. Finally, the U.S. should assist Taiwan to make the necessary structural adjustments so it can make gains toward TPP standards and prepare for eventual membership.” Such steps are crucial to make sure that Taiwan, a valuable U.S. partner and reliable stakeholder, can make positive future contributions to the international community.
The United States must act decisively in 2014 to ensure regional peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. It should consequently take immediate steps to strengthen its partnerships with democratic friends and allies, including Taiwan.
Julia Famularo is a Research Affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute. Terri Giles is Executive Director at the Formosa Foundation.
Image: Flickr/Francisco Diez. CC BY 2.0.