Shim Jae Hoon at PostGlobal

Shim Jae Hoon

South Korea

Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based journalist and commentator writing for a variety of international publications including YaleGlobal Online, The Straits Times of Singapore, The Taipei Times and Korea Herald. He was a correspondent for Far Eastern Economic Review in Seoul, Taipei and Jakarta. Close.

Shim Jae Hoon

South Korea

Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based journalist and commentator writing for a variety of international publications including YaleGlobal Online, The Straits Times of Singapore, The Taipei Times and Korea Herald. more »

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Tread Softly, Make China Responsible

Seoul, South Korea -- Taiwan has been effectively independent from mainland China for a very long time, even predating the 1949 movement of Chiang Kai-shek to the island after his defeat by Mao Zedong's forces. The island was under Portuguese and Dutch rule before Japan formally annexed it in 1895-1945. The island was seriously populated only from the 17th century, when fishermen from China's southern coasts began arriving in numbers. Before that, Taiwan had -- as it still does -- it own "aborigines." Even today, people claiming roots from China constitute just 14% of the populace, with the rest composed of people whose ancestors began arriving three, four or more generations ago.

The islanders never really accepted Chiang's Kuomintang rule. The "2-2-8" massacre of Taiwanese people by the mainlanders in 1949 cut the last psychological connections the Taiwanese may have felt toward the mainland. Indeed, Lee Teng-hui, the native-born vice president and then president of Taiwan feels closer to Japan than to China. Politically and culturally, Taiwan is too heterogeneous to be a part of China. It's more akin to Singapore than to Hong Kong or Macau. Taiwan is the only spot in Asia that feels grateful to Japan for helping to modernize it, by setting up relatively clean judicial and political institutions as well as modernizing the educational system. To many islanders, Japan was and still seems a great deal preferable to the Kuomintang rule which they considered alien and corrupt.

By voting for the Taiwan-based Democratic Progressive Party government in 2000, the islanders effectively opted for independence from China. They now demand an island-wide referendum to determine their own destiny in a vote of self-determination. The United Nations should recognize this exercise in free choice. Let the islanders decide their own destiny.

But President Chen Shui-bian should pursue this goal with the utmost caution to avoid giving Beijing an excuse to launch a military attack. China's stated policy of militarily attacking Taiwan -- in the event of a declaration of independence, uncontrollable political upheaval or the development of nuclear weapons by Taiwan -- admittedly gives Chen no option to pursue his goal. But his foremost priority should be to maintain the peace across the strait. By doing so, he forces China to accept the risks of using force and the consequences arising from that misstep.

Neither Japan nor South Korea can accept the use of force by China to settle its territorial claims over Taiwan, for that will mean the likelihood of their own territorial disputes with China moving in the direction of war. China resorting to military means to settle its claims over Taiwan will have special implications for South Korea, which is just an hour's flying time from Taiwan. China's intervention in the 1950-53 Korean War to prop up the regime of dictator Kim Il Sung has kept the peninsula divided until today. China is still the single power that denies the possibility of a reunified Korea. Would Japan and Korea today accept China behaving like an expansionist hegemon in East Asia? Unlikely, given the considerable military prowess that both nations now possess.

So independence for Taiwan means going softly, softly for Chen and his successors, with Japan and South Korea looking nervously on.

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