Taiwan’s People Power protest is Beijing’s Crimea moment

March 19, 2014

In the heat of the moment, the hundreds of students who have occupied Taiwan’s parliament in defence of their country’s independence are probably not wondering how their actions will be viewed in Western capitals.

But perhaps they should. Washington, Brussels and like-minded governments that profess to be driven by democratic impulses have become disturbingly and dangerously inconsistent in their reactions to people power protests.

In Taiwan the stakes may be very high. It takes little imagination to construct a chain of events in which the students’ action cascades to a point where China’s leader, Xi Jinping, decides to emulate Russian President Vladmir Putin over Crimea, and press home Beijing’s claim to own Taiwan and its 23 million people.

At the moment, that is unlikely. But events in the human story have a habit of rushing downhill, gathering momentum as they go.

And a Chinese take-over of Taiwan would make Putin’s annexation of Crimea look like a tea party. Not only would Taiwanese resist, but Beijing’s acquisition of Taiwan would dramatically alter the strategic balance in Asia, to the alarm of Washington and all China’s neighbours, especially Japan.

The response by the United States and its allied democracies to “People Power” uprisings against established governments has become more and more confused and inconsistent since the first modern outbreak of this phenomenon in the Philippines in 1986.

Western support was clear, as were the issues, for the ousting of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The same held true when people power morphed into the “Colour Revolutions” that deposed the post-Soviet Union despots in Poland, Yugoslavia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Things got more complicated with the outbreak of the Arab Spring three years ago, and have become almost totally inconsistent with the ouster of Ukraine’s elected President, Viktor Yanukovych. Putin’s intervention, on behalf of the ethnic Russian majority in Ukraine’s recently-acquired Crimean peninsular in the Black Sea, has only compounded the inconsistencies of the Western response.

Washington, Brussels and the rest clapped and cheered when persistent mass rallies in Egypt’s major cities led to the removal of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. But when, acting on the urgings from western capitals, the Egyptians rushed into elections that produced a fundamentalist Islamic Muslim Brotherhood administration, there was equal pleasure in seeing it deposed by the military, which has now retaken control of the country.

There is equal inconsistency over when it is okay for outside powers to use military force in defence of popular uprisings and when it is not.

It was fine to use North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces to back the rebel overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. But when Syria’s Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against rebels, U.S. President Barack Obama simply moved his “red line” further away.

Instead, Saudi Arabia and the vehement supporters of radical Sunni Islam, the oil-rich government of Qatar, were encouraged to arm the rebels. That was fine until Qatar starting arming the kind of jihadists and al-Qaida supporters the West has just spent a dozen years trying to eradicate in Afghanistan and Iraq. Assad is now beginning to look like the lesser of available evils.

And while foreign military intervention, real or implied, is fine in Libya or Syria, Putin’s intervention in Crimea, where he has a treaty allowing the deployment of 25,000 Russian troops in defence of Moscow’s naval base in Sevastopol, has prompted Western politicians to come out with some outlandish rhetoric.

A lot of this inflammatory talk is Diaspora politics, of course. It’s not aimed at Moscow. It’s aimed at garnering the votes of immigrant Ukrainians in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

So what are the students occupying Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, and the thousands of supporters on the streets outside the parliament, to make of this? If events do become an out-of-control juggernaut, it could present Washington, Brussels and the Asian democracies with the choice of supporting autocratic and increasingly imperialist Beijing, or democratic Taiwan.

The West’s reluctance to confront Beijing is now well established, and the Chinese Communist Party is very adept at proceeding by indirection.

The protests in Taipei stem from the 2008 election and 2012 re-election of President Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the old Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which fled to Taiwan in 1949 after defeat by the Communists and established a one-party military dictatorship on the island.

Taiwan is now a democracy, though still a fledgling one, and Beijing continues to insist it owns the island, and will invade if necessary.

Ma was elected on a ticket of boosting the island’s economy by improving relations and business ties with China. The economic results have been mixed, and Taiwanese have watched with growing concern as Beijing has pushed for the business talks to develop into negotiations on a political settlement by which the island would become part of China.

Matters have come to a head with an agreement last June between the Beijing and Taipei administrations to allow service sector companies to set up branches in each other’s countries. About 90 per cent of Taiwanese want to keep their country’s independence and have no desire for any kind of political union with China. But many people, especially supporters of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union, see the service industry pact as another step in Beijing’s campaign to take control of Taiwan.

In Taiwan the service industry agreement needs ratification by the Legislative Yuan, where the ruling KMT has a majority, but where opposition parties have the ability to control the timetable.

The KMT at first agreed to a clause-by-clause examination of the pact, but then reneged on the pledge as the debate became heated, and on Monday declared the review complete. It was this betrayal that led to the student occupation of parliament.

Today, Wednesday, there are about 400 students in the Legislative Yuan chamber and several thousand supporters outside being watched by about 2,000 police.

President Ma is in a politically weak position as his second and last term winds down. His personal popularity bounces around nine per cent, and the KMT is increasingly desperate to find a replacement candidate ahead of elections in 2016.

These demonstrations come a few days after the 65th anniversary of the “White Terror,” which started at the end of February, 1949, when Taiwanese rose up against the abusive, corrupt and rapacious rule of the KMT, and were ruthlessly crushed.

Beijing has said clearly for years that one of its justifications for an invasion of Taiwan would be if there was a breakdown of social order on the island and there was a threat of foreign intervention.

Putin, in Crimea, has provided a template for how that game is played.

 Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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