Twofish's Blog

December 16, 2006

Taiwan and the Peace of Westphalia

Filed under: china, international law, taiwan — twofish @ 4:22 pm

One of the most important events in history was the Peace of Westphalia.  After spending 30 years killing each other over the details of whether and how the wine served at comunion became the blood of Christ, people just got exhausted, and the soution was “do what you want.”  As a result the modern state was born, and this later got mixed in with other threads to form the nation-state.

The trouble is that now the concept of the nation-state is causing more problems that it solves in the Taiwan situation.  The Taiwan dispute is basically about whether or not Taiwan is or is not a nation-state, and if you try to resolve the question unambiguiously, lots of people are going to die.

The solution which seems obvious and which *has* been the solution for the last several decades is to not resolve the question unambiguiously, and to provide enough ambiguity in the system so that people can believe what they want.  This involves having multiple interpretations of what “China”, and “Taiwan” mean.

The problem with Chen Shui-Bian was that he tried to make the situation unambigious, and he started from a premise that if 51% of the people on Taiwan voted for a particular interpretation than that interpretation became the one and only objective one.   The articles that I was going to respond to but did were the classical “what identity are you?” and the idea is that majority wins.

There are two problems with this

1) a system of governence in which 51% of the people get to do whatever that want even if the 49% object is not a particularly stable form of government.  You end up with screaming fights over trivial issues in order to get 50%+1 vote, and that in the long run wrecks public trust and confidence in government.

2) a more serious problem is the notion that Taiwan should be able to decide what to do without considering the opinions of the rest of the world.  The argument says that this comes from the right of self-determination.  There are elements of “democratic legitimacy theory.”  Taiwan is a democracy so its opinions matter, the PRC is not so its opinions don’t.

This notion has one serious problem.  It basically means that Taipei has the right and ability to involve the United States into a major war without any input by the American people.  The idea is that the right of self-determination means that the US would be obligated to come to Taiwan’s defense in case of a declaration of independence.  This would have Taipei determining issues of war and peace for the United States.  Chen Shui-Bian might like this, but most Americans don’t.



  1. Hmmm… didn’t you say you were sick of Taiwanese politics a couple of days before?

    SO to make two quick non taiwanese responses

    [1] The system of govt in that place has a division of power between the legislative and the executive. Just like the US. And most presidential elections in the US are not won by great margins. Reagan in 1980, won with 50.7% ( 84 he did much better ) Clinton ( due to Perot ) won with only 43% of the vote in ’92.

    Besides , any presidential system with a winner take all aspect will have close election as candidates will move to the center to capture votes.

    So that country has presidential politics just like the US.

    [2] That country can do whatever it wants. IT will not involve the US unless the executive branch decides to take action.

    The US invaded Iraq, France attacked Darfour, and just look at Israel. Most countries do what they need to do, period. Whatever happens is up to other countries. How many countries helped the US with Iraq ?

    See, I only mentioned the ‘T’ word once.

    Comment by Wenzi — December 20, 2006 @ 7:15 am

  2. 1) One problem in Taiwan is that the constitutional system is not quite stable. If there were a stable division of power between the executive and legislative then there wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but the problem is that Chen tried (fortunately unsuccessfully) to override everything with a referendum.

    The US system makes it extremely hard to change the constitution, and hence the constitution is not subject to “normal politics.” By bringing in the constitution into “normal politics” what Chen did was extremely dangerous because it meant that if the greens got even a small advantage that they could push through constitutional changes that would be unacceptable to the blues.

    Also, “the United States does it” is not a good reason. Taiwan is not the United States and has much less room to maneuver. It would take decades for bad decisions to sink the United States, whereas it bad decisions are currently sinking Taiwan. Because of the governmental paralysis, key decisions are just not being made, and I haven’t seen anything in the way of long term thinking about the future of Taiwan (in contrast to the PRC which is thinking long term).

    2) No Taiwan can’t do what it wants, and it had better get used to that fact. If the United States were unwilling or unable to defend Taiwan in the face of a PRC invasion, then Taiwan would be doomed. Since Taiwan’s security depends on the United States, then Taiwan *must* care about US opinions and limits on its actions, and since the United States is a democracy, then this can’t be delegitimized.

    That’s a bitter pill for pro-independence to swallow, but it is reality.

    Taiwan is not the United States. It is not even France or Israel.

    One major problem that Taiwan has with respect with the PRC is that the PRC has managed to convince the United States that it is a responsible partner, and while it has basic national interests, it is willing to discuss and work with the United States and other national to implement those.

    By contrast, Taiwan has taken a “we can do whatever the hell we want since we are sovereign and independent” attitude, which was really annoyed the United States. The US has enough strategic interests so that it is nowhere close to abandoning Taiwan, but you can clearly see a shift in US policy toward that of the PRC between 2001 and 2006.

    As far as who is helping the United States, the PRC is basically financing the war in Iraq. One thing that Taiwan really, really has to look carefully is how the intervention in Iraq changes public opinions. The US won’t abandon Taiwan in 2007, but if a massive defeat in Iraq causes isolationist sentiment then something bad could happen around 2025 or 2030.

    The world is fast moving away from a world of sovereign nation-states into “something else” and I suspect that “something else” will make the unification-independence debate irrelevant, but the problem is that while Beijing is adapting to the “something else”, Taipei just isn’t, and this has some really bad effects on Taiwan.

    Comment by twofish — December 20, 2006 @ 1:53 pm

  3. I agree with almost everything you have said.

    I don’t think Taiwan has a “we can do whatever the hell we want since we are sovereign and independent”. I think they are just clueless to the outside world and they see everything to the little glimpses that they have of the world. They don’t seem to think about what other countries think ( except for China ). News coverage about thinks like Syria, Iraq, Israel are close to non existent on the local channels, as is investigative reporting. Critical thought on international affairs has been replaced by “small country” jingoism.

    It does bring me to a theory that I have had. Taiwan made a transition from an autocratic rule to democracy. It did not however make that change politically. There was never a “resolution” on a lot of things. White terror, political system. What we have is a democracy grafted onto a system that formerly operated as a democracy. For example, the 18% interest given to some retirees, or the ‘special allowance’ funds that are causing problems. Both of these were done by fiat. CKS just said the govt. should pay and they did. There was never a debate or discussion. My theory is that all orders and laws that are currently in force should be “sunset”ed it out and be re-approved. To put the stamp of legitimately on them. Some sort of closure to the system of government that basically does not fit a small democratic country. This of course will not happen, as too many politicians have learned to milk the system as it currently is and have no desire to change it.

    Which brings me to a second point. Taiwan does not think long term, critically, or globally. This is also a leftover from autocratic rule, and it is not something that can be legislated away. The laws the blues passed seemed to be shortsighted. Even simple laws, they don’t seem to be able to pass. Such as an automatic recall law, which after 2004, you think that would have passed quickly. The culture must change not to accept the paparazzi filler passed of as news. I do see this slowly happening. I have noticed that a lot of people are turning off the news. They feel it is to “noisy” , extreme and worthless. Maybe one day there will be a Taiwanese version of the BBC world news.

    The taiwanese take things from the media without critically looking at what is said. The biggest change will come with the 2008 legislative elections. With the change to a single member districts, politicians will come under scrutiny. Not by the press, but by their opponent.

    Comment by wenzi — December 22, 2006 @ 7:10 am

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