Reflections on the Occupation of the Taiwanese Parliament (Sunflower Student Movement) over the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement
Below is a post from my Facebook on 19 March 2014.
I don’t usually write long posts on Facebook, but here is a bit of introspection.
I lived in Taiwan during the formative years of my childhood, and with my family still there, naturally I would care about what is happening in my country. I write this with mixed emotions. Even now I feel weird referring to Taiwan as a country. Because many people will no doubt correct me that ‘No, Taiwan is not a country’ – ‘because it is not part of the UN’, ‘did you not know that your government still claims jurisdiction over mainland China?’, ‘It is part of China’ or ‘It is China’. I am not here to debate technicalities; please spare me things which I already ‘know’, and have lived my life trying to understand and reconcile. I merely ask the question: how do I refer to the place I am from, if not a country? I have always ‘felt’ like it was a country, and it has the semblance of one. For the sake of political correctness, should I be calling it Taiwan, China, Republic of China – depending on who I am talking to? Even the above feels like a crude summary. I believe this crisis of identity has been something that has affected my Taiwanese friends as well.
The Rise of China and Normative Constraints
Max Lin, 1635489
This piece will focus on the English School and the American ‘pivot towards Asia’ in light of Obama’s recent trips to the region. The piece will begin with an exposition of the theory and evaluate it against other major theories, followed by a explanation on the policy. Finally, the theory will be applied and discussed.
Obama says Asia-Pacific is his top priority. Courtesy of ABC News.
The English School
The English School shares similarities to both realism and idealism. Having said this, within the English School there are also major disagreements. The strands of English School theorists can be divided into three waves, starting with the Classic English theorists such as Martin Wight and Charles Manning. The second wave includes James Mayall, and recently the English School has undergone a renaissance with contemporaries such as Barry Buzan. As a crude summary, the classical theorists see less potential for international progress and places high priority on ‘plurality’ and order, while the latter theorists are somewhat more optimistic on the normative possibilities of change and new norms in an international society.
Nonetheless, there are five uniting features for all English School theories. Firstly, that the [stable] organisation of states in the international sphere is one which necessarily emerges from a mere ‘international system’ to an ‘international society’ governed by ‘norms, rules and institutions’. English School theorists place primacy on these normative rules [at least in competition with other factors such as the balance of powers in realism and liberal institutions in liberalism]. Thirdly, the English School believes order is the norm, which is where the English School most drastically diverges from classical realism. However, the English School does not share the Kantian notion of the potential or inevitability of radical change (some possibilities exist where critical theory overlaps). The final arm of the English School is that it examines ‘facts’ in the context of history, and behaviour in the context of meaning and motive. In summary, they are ‘anti-rationalist’, sharing this with constructivism.
To what extent is The Pivot consistent with the English School?
The key issues in the region include nuclear proliferation of North Korea, trade navigation in the South China Sea and reassuring American allies with the rise of China. Other concerns purported by the United States administration include engaging with regional institutions, expanding trade and advancing democracy and human rights.
At face value, the pivot towards Asia seems unreservedly realist. With China’s growing economic and military influence, the United States is merely shifting its resources to ensure there is a balance of power [for the US] in the region. On the other hand, the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, and multilateral security treaties and assurances appear to align with liberal notions.
It is my contention, that the purpose and value of international theories is to best model and predict international behaviour. Therefore, there is some tension with the normative element of the English School. The attractiveness of the English School, however, is that it is not mutually exclusive with the realist and liberal notions above. The English School delivers by first acknowledging that the balance of power is one norm in the international society, but also applies other structures or ‘rules’, such as diplomacy, international law and the mutual recognition of sovereignty.
Despite claims by countries and observers such as ex-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd praising the policy in light of China having a ‘hard-line, realist view of international relations’, China is not as a pariah outside the international society. China subscribes to the same institutions of trade (joining the World Trade Organisation) and diplomacy (having a permanent seat on the Security Council) and therefore has a corresponding interest in preserving these rule-based norms. For example, China’s own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership can be seen as utilising these diplomatic and institutional norms to benefit her and simultaneously preserve order. China’s support for North Korea is waning due to international norms of her alleged support of human rights abuses (third wave interpretation, more radical). Moreover, it would be to the detriment of China if it flouted its obligations as an international ‘citizen’, as it would be not be able to appeal to the same rules say if the United States decided to punish China’s undervaluation of her currency especially when the undervaluation is considered legal under the World Trade Organisation.
One last observation to make is that with increased cooperation in the region, and further recognition of these norms, order would be preserved. Ironically, with China’s growing clout in a stable environment, it could play a greater role in counter-terrrorism operations and international peacekeeping. This is an unsustainable burden currently shouldered by the US which has been in part the US rationale behind the Pivot. When order is preserved by pluralism, new norms can emerge for solidarism. This is when progress develops and where order intersects with justice.
The advantage of the English School is that it is seen as the via media between realism and idealism, and incorporates anti-rationalist approaches of constructivism. The short-falls include the difficulty to test the theory as these norms are not fixed. Ultimately, I want to flag two more issues worthy of contemplation. Firstly, how norms can be tiered in an international society; for example, when the US and its allies export a set of norms such as liberal democracy versus China’s state capitalism, both can subscribe to a higher ‘norm’, and (2) how the English School provides a convincing account of how these norms can create divisions, resist establishments, assimilate each other, and/or co-exist.
The Real China: Taiwan’s Cross Strait Agreement and Realism
Max Lin, 1635489, University of Auckland, 24/03/2014
How do we reconcile Taiwan’s recent parliament occupation to protest the Cross Strait Service Agreement with realism?
With international spotlight on Ukraine and Russia, this blog post would like to turn towards what is happening in Asia, particularly Taiwan (Republic of China). On 18 March 2014, a group of students stormed past police and occupied the Taiwanese parliament. This is the first time in Taiwan’s young democracy that its citizens have occupied its parliament, and the event is still unfolding as this blog is written.
Image courtesy of the Diplomat: Inside Parliament.
Image courtesy of CNN: Taiwanese protesters occupying parliament.
What was the nature of these protests? How can we make sense of them using international relations theory? These protesters demand that the Taiwanese government reject a trade deal signed previously between Taiwanese and Chinese government (yet to be ratified by parliament) earlier that year, which many deem as unification by stealth. They claim that the deal would benefit large businesses at the expense of Taiwan’s small and medium sized businesses and would allow China leverage over Taiwan, hence undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty. The protest has both substantive and procedural elements to it, claiming the agreement is both damaging and unconstitutional.
The focus of this blog post will be classical and structural realism: knowledge of the three assumptions and six principles will be assumed.
Is Taiwan or should Taiwan be considered a country, and how does it inform our understanding of realism?
Realism is based on three key premises: statism, survival and self-help. This is not a piece advocating or opposing Taiwan’s moral status as a country, but rather what this ambiguity means for political theory. Statism argues that states are the primary actor, and all other actors and concerns are subsidiary. This question therefore is an a priori enquiry, before any further questions on the applicability of realism can be considered, and thus carries normative weight, and not just the descriptive value of theoretical modelling. For example, when we say ‘Russia is merely reasserting its sovereignty over Crimea’ versus ‘Crimea seceded from Ukraine and ceded sovereignty to Russia in accordance with the will of the people’, we are making different value judgments despite the “act” being the same. The key here is to highlight the nexus and the tension between the purported neutrality and amorality of realism vis-a-vis its prescriptive implications.
Therefore, applying realism and assuming the condition of anarchy, and that power is sought to preserve the state, communists and nationalists who wish for unification, would see Taiwan as a renegade province. Therefore in this case China would merely be reasserting its sovereignty over or exercising jurisdiction and leverage over its own territory (not unlike a fiscal union or federalism over an highly autonomous region, or China’s one country two systems with Hong Kong) – realism would appear to be a non-starter, or at least one where it is only one state consolidating power internally . On the other hand, if Taiwan is deemed a state, it would be a bilateral agreement for mutual gain. The takeaway from this is that, before we can ask why a definitional assumption is or should be applied, we must ask how to apply it.
Image courtesy of CNN: Chinese business cards photographed by protesters after occupying one of the Taiwanese minister’s office.
How does economic cooperation fit into the framework of realism, and how do variables such as sovereignty, treaties and international institutions affect this?
International relations theory often focuses on military conflicts, but how does trade fit into the framework of realism? If we accept the three premises of Statism, survival and self-help and the assumption of anarchy, is trade prima facie an objection against realism and an affirmation of the cooperation and institutions central to liberalism?
Not necessarily. This critique is often made because realism is often associated with mercantilism or economic nationalism. However, that politico-economic relationship need not exist. Consistent with realism, Taiwan could be acting to ‘help’ itself in an ever competitive global market. Moreover, if we take anarchy, self-help and survival to its logical extremism, states would regress into autarkies. This would of course be a misrepresentation. The more nuanced approach would be to consider Taiwan’s trade deal with China as one that is necessary under structural realism, one that might be regrettable, but the trade-off of any sovereignty is required because of the incentives that exist in a world which needs to trade with China. We can see this by other counter-balancing moves by the Taiwanese government, for example recent free trade agreements with New Zealand and Singapore, and efforts to join the TPPA, as well as the fishing agreement reached with Japan in the Senkaku, in an attempt to balance against China’s growing leverage and clout.
Image courtesy of Reuters: Ma-Ying-Jeou addresses press on the importance of the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement.
Of course we could argue that there are other historical and ideological reasons for this trade agreement, for example unification. However that is beyond the scope of this discussion.
Non-state actors, such as corporations and protesters, appear to be influencing state decision-making, how can this be reconciled within our understanding of realism?
To briefly cover this, even if corporations were lobbying the Taiwanese government to sign the trade agreement, the chief beneficiary would still be the Taiwanese state which relies on the activity and scope of these companies to compete with conglomerates such as South Korea’s own chaebol. Accordingly, it is still in the state’s best interest.
Image courtesy of BBC: Citizens barricading themselves against state police.
President Ma-Ying Jeou also spoke publicly about the protest, saying the agreement is too important for Taiwan, thus the actions of protesters appear to be minimised.
This blog explores three theoretical underpinnings of realism in relation to one of Taiwan’s contemporary events: firstly, how do we define the boundaries of realist enquiry, for example what a state is; secondly, what is the relationship between trade and realism; finally, how non-state actors such as corporations and protest movements operate within a realist framework.