Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Give Taiwan credit for democracy

Taipei Times - April 30th 2008

While protests over China's crackdown in Tibet and the debate about Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence continue to fester, the injustice of Taiwan's ongoing international isolation has barely stirred a flicker of interest despite Taiwan's recent presidential election and referendums on UN membership. This neglect is not only shortsighted, but may also prove dangerous.

This seeming double standard can be explained partly by a sense of guilt: The West has, for the most part, embraced Kosovo's independence in an effort to assuage its own culpability for not preventing late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of ethnic cleansing there. Similarly, much of the world is protesting on behalf of Tibet because countless millions have witnessed China's brutal suppression of Tibetan culture.

Taiwan, on the other hand, does not grab our attention, because it is stable and flourishing economically. But it has never been part of the People's Republic of China. Taiwan is an unrecognized independent state with a vigorous democracy and high standards of human rights. Because Taiwan has not allowed itself to become a victim, the world simply does not feel guilty about it, and so ignores it.

But perhaps we should feel some guilt. Taiwan deserves great credit for standing on its own two feet, despite the international isolation imposed. China blocks it from participating fully in the international arena, whether through the WTO, the Olympics, or UN agencies, including the WHO. To its shame, China allows its political goal of excluding Taiwan from membership in all international organizations to trump even urgent public health concerns.

The small number of countries that recognize Taiwan diplomatically has dwindled owing to a mixture of Chinese pressure and blandishments. On top of all this, Taiwan's nearly 23 million people go about their daily business knowing that about 1,400 Chinese missiles are ready to be launched at them at a moment's notice.

It is not for me to say that Taiwan should be recognized as an independent country. To all intents and purposes, Taiwan is already independent, albeit without formal recognition. Equally, there are plenty of Taiwanese who would like the island eventually to reunify with China, particularly if China democratizes and ceases to be a one-party communist dictatorship. However, we cannot deny that Taiwanese are unjustly being refused their place in the wider world.

The global community should do more to usher Taiwan into the international mainstream. Western powers have helped champion human rights and self-determination within the bounds of international law. The campaigns that the West waged throughout the 1980s in solidarity with democratic forces in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe helped bring about the end of communist domination. A similar commitment to the democratic rights of Taiwanese could have salutary effects in China. Moreover, Taiwan is a natural ally of any party that espouses the values of pluralist politics, free markets and human rights.

It seems particularly shortsighted, indeed hypocritical, for the US and Britain to seek to spread democracy and human rights throughout the world while failing to recognize and reward the Taiwanese, a people who have embraced these concepts wholeheartedly.

Unquestioning recognition of the 'one China' policy sends the message that we appreciate more a country that is a big, communist dictatorship rather than a small, multiparty democracy. For the record, there are clear precedents for divided countries to enter the UN as separate states and then eventually to reunify: West and East Germany, North and South Yemen, and perhaps one day, the two Koreas.

Ultimately, it is for Taiwan and China to regulate and resolve their relations. There are already some positive signs of a bilateral thaw as a new administration prepares to take office in Taiwan, with high-level talks taking place between Chinese President Hu Jintao and vice president-elect Vincent Siew. The democratic world has an obligation to support this process - not only because Taiwan deserves its support, but also because engaging more with Taiwan could potentially be a powerful instrument of leverage for broader change in China.

Charles Tannock is the British Conservative Party's foreign affairs spokesman and the European Parliament's rapporteur on the eastern dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy.