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Taiwan’s Diplomacy

The Chinese philosopher Mencius once said that “small states have to be smart, not impulsive, in dealing with big states, and that big states should be tolerant, not overbearing, in dealing with small states.” So quoth leading Taiwanese politician Lien Chan, speaking yesterday at NYU in the context of President Obama’s nuclear summit.

Mr. Chan knows whereof he speaks: he not only has been at the forefront of talks between Beijing and Taipei; he is also the honorary chairman of the KMT party and was the vice president of Taiwan from 1996 to 2000.

The timing of his NYU speech was especially interesting. As the general mood, at least as expressed in the official rhetoric of international leaders, favors disarmament as the path to stability and peace, Taiwan provides a contrarian example. And Obama’s stance on disarmament will be of utmost significance to Taiwan. Obama seems to have handled his Taiwan policy with uncharacteristic boldness so far, following through on an arms sale despite China’s fit of pique. That has empowered Taiwan to approach China in a way that is “smart, not impulsive.”

Though the signing of a peace agreement between China and Taiwan still appears a distant dream, Mr. Chan sees reason for cautious optimism. Taiwan has made an effort in the past years to strengthen its economic relationship with the mainland, which has been viewed by some as an unprecedented thaw. Mr. Chan spoke of dramatic increases in cross-strait investment and tourism, and he noted burgeoning public support within Taiwan for progress toward such a peace agreement. A strong dialogue has been established between the two states, and differences have been temporarily shelved. Taiwan has been able to achieve such steps, he suggested, because it has been able to hold its own against the mighty mainland.

As leaders from around the world return home from the nuclear summit, Taiwan provides an important reminder. Sometimes the threat of force — maintained responsibly through a viable deterrent — is the best guarantor of peace and progress. The elimination of nuclear arms is a lofty, worthy dream, but disarmament is in no way a certain path to peace. In fact, arms have given Taiwan the clout to pursue peace through negotiation. That’s a lesson big states and small states might bear in mind.