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Onward to Mongolia

Publication Date:01/01/2003

Late last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Taiwan would post a representative to Ulaanbaatar and accept an accredited minister from Mongolia. With this simple gesture, Taiwan, ninety-one years after Mongolia first proclaimed independence, recognized Mongolia as a nation independent of China. The event caused barely a crease in the smooth, flannelled world of diplomacy. Indeed, the entire episode was enveloped in a cloud of determined nonchalance.

On the surface, the new policy appears to call for a simple reshuffling. Files will be removed from the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which will be responsible for the handling of Mongolian affairs in the future. Visa regulations for visiting Mongolians have already been implemented, and talks are being conducted by concerned agencies to arrange things like cultural and commercial exchanges, as well as labor policies.

But the seamless introduction of the policy belies the underlying difficulties of diplomacy for Taiwan--a nation struggling to free itself from the stubborn precedents of history. The new policy bumps up against everything from official map regulations, some of which have already been relaxed, to constitutional constraints. The constitutional issue is patently the most serious and also the most politically volatile. Article 4 of the General Provisions states that: "The territory of the Republic of China according to its existing national boundaries shall not be altered except by resolution of the National Assembly."

The National Assembly, however, has already been emasculated, with most of its prerogatives handed to the legislature. There is no consensus at present to rewrite the Constitution or to entirely scrap the National Assembly. These questions should be left to the future, but they should not imprison the government of Taiwan or arrest its efforts to move forward.

Until the recent change in policy, Outer Mongolia was officially a province of the Republic of China, whose provisional capital was Taipei. In the words of T.S. Eliot: "History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors." And Taiwan must not get caught in them, feeling its way blindly through a darkened maze. An understanding of historical precedents is essential, but must not steer Taiwan into a diplomatic cul-de-sac, with historical baggage sealing off the only exit. For Taiwan's future, history can be the lock or the key.

The key to a diplomatic deadlock often lies in doing the unthinkable. When there is seemingly nowhere to go, one must still go forward. Action itself prompts a new alignment, an acceptance of the previously forbidden. In this light, the determined nonchalance of the new Mongolian policy starts to make sense. To work through the ramifications of recognizing Mongolia from top to bottom would require the rethinking of the entire history of the Republic of China--from its Constitution to its borders. But with a simple, sophisticated gesture, Taiwan's diplomats have solved with elan what seemed to be unsolvable.

There is even a precedent to counter arguments of unconstitutionality. In 1946, the ROC government recognized the independence of Mongolia, along with the rest of the world, after a referendum stipulated by the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty was held in 1945 and Mongolians voted for independence. Mongolia for a second time had proclaimed independence (the first was in 1911 after the overthrow of the last emperor of China). Recognition was withdrawn, however, in 1953 when the ROC government on Taiwan revoked the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty and reasserted the claim that Mongolia was ROC territory in order to put pressure on the Soviets. Even from the provisional capital of Taipei, the ROC was engaged in power politics on a grand scale.

Mongolia, in other words, had become a pawn in a geopolitical struggle. Larger, more powerful nations argued over the fate of the country for their own gain and without regard for the wishes of the people of that nation, just as Taiwan presently finds itself in the middle of a hot-handed tug of war for power in East Asia. Under the Kuomintang administration of Lee Teng-hui, however, the Republic of China renounced the patriotic obligation to retake the Chinese mainland. All but the most reactionary Colonel Blimps have given up dreams of restoring the old boundaries of the Republic of China, including or excluding Mongolia. If then neither the ruling party nor the opposition has any future designs on Mongolia and the People's Republic of China has already recognized the independence of Mongolia, it is hard to imagine just what there is left to fight about.

It should also be pointed out that Mongolia entered the United Nations (UN) in 1961, sharing for ten years membership with the ROC government, which withdrew in 1971. Taiwan, which wants its seat back, needs support for its position, and Mongolia should be enlisted in that cause. Taiwan's entry into the UN has been blocked in particular by China and its smaller proxies. Taiwan can build support for its own bid by demonstrating that it can conduct its own foreign policy. Some have even hailed the move as the start of a "go north" policy, but this is overstating the matter, as the economic consequences will be minimal. The significance lies not in economics or trade but in the normalization of a relationship--a feat that Taiwan would like to replicate around the globe.

The recognition of Mongolia, in short, leaves unanswered questions, but it allows progress to be made where before there was none.