Kirsten Asdal graduated from the US Naval Academy in May 2013 with a B.S. in Chinese. She will complete a master’s degree in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford University in 2015, then report to her first ship, the USS MICHAEL MURPHY (DDG112), to serve as a division officer.
My first four months living in Taiwan were very fruitful, and I am grateful for the new perspectives I developed through my experiences and studies. I have been taking a masters class on cross-strait relations, as well as auditing a Ph.D. class on Asia-Pacific security. Meanwhile, at Chengchi University’s MacArthur Center for Security Studies, I have been researching the new Chinese Coast Guard and related implications for regional security. I attended the annual conference of the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific in Beijing, and I have been working on a subsequent research paper with a team of Young Leaders from the Pacific Forum on the usefulness of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting.
Aside from my research, I have also been taking language courses. When I first began my Chinese class in early September, I could neither read nor write using traditional characters. Now, I can write responses using all traditional characters for our tests, which include recent Taiwan news articles. Outside the classroom, my roommate and friends have taught me the colloquial Chinese that is heard and used more frequently around the city. I’m happy with my progress so far, and I’m even happier to still have another 6 months to learn as much as I can.
Some people have told me that one may learn more about mainland China by looking at it from Taiwan than by actually going there. In some ways, I have found this to be true. Taiwanese people are open to discussing the sensitive political situation across the strait. Here we can have frank discussions about China’s rise, its foreign and domestic policies, and the future challenges it is facing. Furthermore, Taiwan has a mix of both Western and Eastern influences, so the perspectives here may be richer and more balanced.
I particularly enjoy the diversity of my classrooms, where I am surrounded by students from around the world, each bringing a unique perspective to our discussions. My classmates come from mainland China, Taiwan, Europe, Asia, and the US. In my Asia-Pacific security class, when the discussion shifts to American foreign policy in Asia, I get asked tough questions about what is right and what is best. I have really had to wrestle with these questions since leaving a comfortingly like-minded student body, which rarely questioned the United States’ rights and its responsibility to call the shots on the other side of the world. I look forward to sharing a more nuanced view of international affairs with my colleagues back in the US.
I also better understand and appreciate the uniqueness of the cross-strait relationship. First of all, while “the Taiwan issue” is absolutely central to Taiwanese politics, and the Taiwanese government’s position has a deep impact on cross-strait relations. In my cross-strait relations class, we’ve explored Taiwan’s sovereignty and how it can be explained given the constricting relationship with China. Another interesting question is whether international relations theory can be used to analyze the cross-strait relationship, which is neither fully international nor fully domestic. Our readings and discussions have given me a deeper understanding of the relationship’s evolution, from the Chinese dynasties’ rather weak claims to the island to a tense political deadlock between two (arguably) full-fledged international entities.
Outside of research and classes, personal experiences have also shaped my understanding of Taiwan and Asia-Pacific regional dynamics. As Dr. Vocke, the Executive Director of Fulbright Taiwan, predicted, living in Taiwan has been very comfortable and enjoyable as a foreigner. Taiwanese people are friendly and helpful. Transportation is clean and easy. The island’s scenic landscapes are impressive. Moreover this democratic society feels somewhat familiar despite the language barrier.
The question of identity among Taiwanese is also an important part of the cross-strait relationship and the island’s political status. One can read about the issue of Taiwanese identity, but it is best understood through interactions with Taiwanese people. Until one visits Taiwan, it may be hard to understand just how distinctly these two societies have developed. Many Taiwanese individuals will say that they don’t identify themselves as Chinese and don’t wish to be citizens of China. At the same time, they also don’t think total independence would be a smart move because of the security ramifications that independence may provoke. I’ve encountered some who fear closer relations with China: even though it may make violence less likely, such a shift may make it easier for China to pull Taiwan in and justify reunification. My research center conducts so-called track two dialogues, which involve not entirely academic, but not quite official interaction. I didn’t realize it before, but even something as seemingly helpful as track two dialogues can be controversial in such a complex and delicate relationship.
At the beginning of the semester, I first posed the research question: will the newly established Chinese Coast Guard be used to increase regional stability or to continue elbowing around in the East and South China Seas? It has been interesting to pursue that question throughout the semester as I’ve watched regional developments unfold. While that question was rather easily argued either way when I first arrived in Taiwan, a series of recent actions by the Chinese have convinced me that China has made up its mind to aggressively secure its maritime claims against other claimants by using its increasing power.
The importance of these territorial disagreements is striking, and rather hard to understand for Americans like myself who are unaware of even one such dispute between the US and its neighbors (in fact they do exist, as I’ve learned, but they obviously are not that important). The Asia-Pacific territorial conflicts are not just political in nature; in fact they carry a deep historical and national importance for the people of the countries involved. Even though in some cases politicians stoke this fervor, its existence is not fabricated, and this has real implications for the possibility of violence erupting sometime in the near future.
There are plenty of regional agreements and organizations in place to improve relations and increase cooperation, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. However, most are not effective enough to diffuse tension should a real threat of violence arise. The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting is a relatively new framework that has successfully brought countries together to conduct non-traditional security training drills. Many hope the Meeting can use its early momentum to expand its work into traditional security, which is a much more difficult cooperation challenge, if only politically.
The U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific is still critical for maintaining stability and security. The more the U.S. fails to reassure its friends and partners of its commitment, the more room China has to assert itself in a potentially volatile way. President Obama’s Rebalance to the Pacific policy is helpful only to the extent that it can actually be practically implemented. So far, the U.S. has been too bogged down in political gridlock and budget concerns to fulfill the promised rebalancing much beyond the military aspects. The steadily increasing tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is just one example of how the next few years will be critical to ensure regional security. Things can bubble up and boil over far too quickly, and all parties involved must continue to make efforts towards increasing cooperation and trust to reduce tensions.
From Taiwanese culture to regional security concerns, I have already learned so much living here in Taiwan, and I’m so grateful to have this opportunity. Taiwan is a really special place that is often overlooked as both a travel and a study destination, and I’m trying to savor every week here!