MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – “People need to bear in mind that you need to be independent, since China uses economics as a leverage (to push its geopolitical agenda),” Taiwan’s dauntless President Tsai Ing-wen told me during our conversation last Friday.
The mood in the room was sombre, yet the Cornell-trained legal scholar and longtime activist remained stoically composed.
In her every word, chosen with laser-sharp precision, one could easily detect an iron commitment to protect Taiwan’s independence at all costs.
Throughout the hour long exchanges at the Republic of China’s (Taiwan) presidential palace, I asked her, among others, what advice she had to offer other regional states.
At the heart of Tsai’s argument was how her country should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who believes that economic engagement with China would eventually lead to peace.
In the past three decades, Taiwan became a major source of investments for mainland China.
Over time, as China became richer, the lure of its gigantic markets and globally integrated factories pulled the island-nation well into Beijing’s sphere of economic influence.
Many Taiwanese politicians argued that deepening economic interdependence would ensure peace and stability in bilateral relations.
In fact, this was exactly the kind of argument that Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, made during his tenure.
Incidentally, I had the opportunity to also meet President Ma back in 2015 in exactly the same room, where we had brief exchanges on the South China Sea disputes.
He was charmingly dashing, looking much younger than his age, and never lacking in eloquent confidence.
Only months later, the Harvard-trained Taiwanese leader made a huge diplomatic gamble by attending a historic summit with his mainland Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
He sincerely hoped that economic interdependence coupled with direct, high-stakes diplomacy would do the trick, cementing his legacy as one of Taiwan’s most ambitious leaders.
But Ma’s gamble failed to pay off.
As China’s power rose and Taiwan was left increasingly dependent, Beijing began to push the envelope, seeking compromise on its own terms.
Over the succeeding years, Chinese leaders even warned, with growing brazenness, that it won’t shun the use of military force to reincorporate Taiwan into a Greater China.
Despite China’s deployment of advanced military assets closer to the Taiwan Strait, violation of Taiwanese airspace and exploitation of its democratic freedoms with cutting-edge “influence operations,” the Tsai administration has remained steadfast and unshaken.
As Taiwan’s courageously articulate Foreign Minister Joseph Wu put it, “peace can’t be maintained through bowing to (Chinese)dictatorship.”
Senior Taiwanese officials told me that Beijing was “trying very hard to infiltrate our society,” including through influencing pro-China businessmen in the country.
Things are beginning to change, however.
Taiwanese businessmen are now looking for investment destinations elsewhere, particularly in Southeast Asia.
They are moving away from China, where rising wage costs have gone hand in hand with technology theft and the systematic harassment of foreign investors.
“We now have more liberty to speak for our independence,” President Tsai told me, emphasising the island-nation’s gradual decoupling from the mainland Chinese economy in recent years.
My greatest takeaway from conversations with Taiwanese leaders, however, was their faith in the youth, especially amid the massive anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong in recent weeks.
As President Tsai put it, “the youth are the best protection for democracy.”
Instead of questioning their political maturity, or demanding blind obedience, Taiwan’s enlightened leaders constantly encourage the youth to fight for freedoms and protect national sovereignty.
Most importantly, they inspire the youth with their courage of conviction under the most impossible geopolitical conditions.
As one senior official put it, we should not “lose (our) moral courage to stay true to our principles,” never putting “economic interest before our (political) values.”
The latest poll by Academia Sinica shows that the Taiwanese people largely choose sovereignty over economic engagement with China.
Faced with an existential challenge, the Taiwanese leaders have chosen to fight back for both freedom and national independence against all odds. “Showing weakness (to China) is an invitation for aggression,” Foreign Minister Wu told me.
Perhaps, President Rodrigo Duterte can learn a thing or two from them when it comes to courage of leadership, unconditional patriotism, geopolitical savvy and belief in the youth as the guardians of our democratic republic.
The writer is an opinion columnist with the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.