Now that Taiwan feels it has righted a historical wrong by giving up its claim to Mongolia, it is moving to establish ties with the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile. This is presented as another move to get rid of historical baggage, of which Taiwan has more than its fair share. Mind you, it is not really Taiwan’s fault – at least, not the fault of this generation of leaders. The roots lie in Chinese history.
In 1946, Chiang Kai-shek recognised Mongolia’s independence following a referendum there. A few years later, however, his government was defeated in the Chinese civil war, swept off the mainland and forced to relocate to Taipei. There, he decided in 1953 to withdraw his recognition of Mongolia’s independence. And so Taiwan has from then on claimed Mongolia as part of its territory, a fictional claim ignored by the rest of the world, as was evident when Mongolia joined the United Nations in 1961. To his credit, President Chen Shui-bian, since his election in 2000, has done what he could to right a historical anomaly and, after much legal manoeuvring, established a Taiwan representative office in Ulan Bator last September. Mongolia is scheduled to open an office in Taipei later this month.
Now, Mr Chen has turned his sights on Tibet, another territory formerly claimed by Taiwan. You may ask what connections there are between Tibet and Mongolia. To the rest of the world, none – except historical and cultural ones. Taiwan, however, lumps the two together and, in fact, within the cabinet there is a Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission. Last month, a quasi-official organisation, the Taiwan-Tibet Exchange Foundation, was inaugurated with Mr Chen in attendance. According to Mr Chen, the foundation will serve as a conduit between the Taiwan government and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. So Taiwan, it seems, is moving from one extreme to the other, from claiming Tibet as part of its territory, to supporting a government-in-exile for an independent Tibet. (The Dalai Lama says he wants autonomy, but other members of his government make it clear independence is the goal.)
“When we stop considering Mongolians and Tibetans to be mainlanders, the problems we had before are resolved,” Mr Chen said at the ceremony. He seemed to be saying Taiwan no longer considered Mongolians and Tibetans to be Chinese citizens, a statement with far-reaching ramifications. The Chen administration reportedly plans to dismantle the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, now Taiwan has established unofficial ties with Mongolia and opened a new channel of communications with the Tibetan government-in-exile.
You may say that since Taiwan is not in a position to administer either Mongolia or Tibet, having such a commission is superfluous. That is certainly a valid point. The problem is that Taiwan appears to be replacing a body that was meant to at least symbolise Chinese sovereignty over Tibet with a body that recognises a Tibetan government-in-exile.
This suggests Taiwan not only no longer claims Tibet as part of its territory, but that it does not even recognise the jurisdiction of the central government over Tibet. By doing so, Taiwan will become the only government in the world to challenge the mainland’s sovereignty over Tibet. Does it really want to do this? Does it want to further exacerbate, unnecessarily I would say, a relationship that is vital to its very existence? The trouble is, the status of Tibet is quite different from that of Mongolia. Mongolia is a sovereign state whose independence is recognised by the international community. Tibet, however, is part of China, a fact that is not disputed by any country in the world. Is Taiwan now going to challenge China’s claim? It is one thing for Taiwan to recognise reality and say that Mongolia is not part of its territory. It is a different matter for Taiwan to imply Tibet is not part of Chinese territory.
I understand Taiwan’s frustration in not being recognised by the international community. But recognition by a government-in-exile is not that great as a consolation prize. It is not at all clear that Taiwan has thought through all the ramifications of its new policy. Taiwan should give this additional thought.
Frank Ching (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.