Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The ‘wayward cousin’ syndrome

Regarding the Chinese threat as the antics of a ‘wayward cousin’ rather than a classical external threat could account for the Ma administration’s apparent lack of seriousness on the subject

Even after North Korea invaded the South in 1950, sparking the Korean War, followed by decades of tensions marked by skirmishes, missile tests, nuclear detonations, artillery attacks and the sinking of a navy vessel, the authorities in Seoul have often been less strident about the North Korean threat than their allies like Japan and the US, a response that, at first glance, may seem counterintuitive.

Two phenomena could account for this reaction: cultural proximity — South Koreans often refer to North Koreans as “wayward cousins” involved in a family dispute — and the fact that South Korea would suffer the brunt of an attack by the North. As such, the leadership in Seoul has often gone to great lengths to avoid unnecessarily alienating Pyongyang.

In many ways, Taipei under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) appears to have reached similar conclusions with regards to China. Amid a growing sense of alarm among regional powers at an increasingly assertive Chinese military, one of the few countries that has downplayed the threat is Taiwan. There is no small irony in this, given that Taiwan, despite supposedly warming ties with Beijing, remains the primary, albeit not the only, target of China’s rapidly growing and modernizing military.

As with Seoul vis-a-vis North Korea, Taipei has emphasized the need for dialogue, while Ma, who never misses an opportunity to remind Taiwanese of their “Chinese heritage” and the “Chinese nation,” also seems to regard Chinese as “wayward cousins” in an unresolved family feud. Ma’s tendency to look at Chinese as a misled family member, rather than the “other,” could help explain what comes across as his failure to fully account for the magnitude of the Chinese threat, or at least shed some light on his often fuzzy definition of Taiwan and Taiwanese, as is often the case with the two Koreas.

My unsigned editorial, published today in the Taipei Times, continues here.

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