In 1972, Lung-chu Chen published an article in the Yale Law Journal entitled “Who Owns Taiwan: A Search for International Title” along with then Yale Associate Professor of Law W. M. Reisman. In it, they “called for an immediate plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations to ascertain the wishes of its then 15 million people regarding the island’s status”. Forty-four years later, Chen, Professor of Law at New York Law School, once again proposes a plebiscite for the Taiwanese people to determine their future in his latest work, The U.S.-Taiwan-China Relationship in International Law and Policy.

Must Read for Taiwan Analysts

A renowned international law scholar, Chen has written an insightful yet accessible book that is a must read for anyone interested in Taiwan. While a basic understanding of legal principles would be useful, Chen’s writing does not assume this knowledge. A basic understanding of Taiwanese political history is similarly unnecessary. Likely inevitable due to the nature of the subject matter, this book introduces readers to fundamental concepts and ideas in Taiwanese history and politics, American law on Congressional and executive powers, international relations, and international law and weaves them together in a intelligible manner while applying them to the context of Taiwan.

The book is divided into five parts and “give[s] a comprehensive view of the Taiwan question in the style of the New Haven School’s policy-oriented approach to international law”. In this approach, the common interests of the wold community, including “shared demands for human dignity and security and the protection of human rights—bedrock norms in contemporary international law along with the principles of self-determination and the peaceful resolution of conflict” are recognised and placed in the forefront. As one’s perspective is important in this inquiry, Chen acknowledges his stance upfront that “Taiwan is an independent state,” a position that is noticeable throughout the book.

The first section provides the context by introducing Taiwanese history and contemporary politics. The next part discusses the importance of Taiwan’s development as a state to the international community, the common viewpoints of Taiwan’s legal status, and the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act, through which domestic American law issues are explained. The third part examines each of the relationships between the main players, Taiwan, China, and the United States and looks at the domestic forces that influence international relations. The next section projects probable future developments of US-China relations and developments in Taiwan. Finally, the book concludes with recommendations to further cement Taiwan’s position in the international arena and advocates for a plebiscite to determine Taiwan’s future.

Settling Debates

At various points, Chen introduces perspectives held by scholars or advocates and explains their flaws. Instead of denouncing them outright, he treats them with respect and presents their arguments fairly. This makes his criticisms more persuasive. For example, Chen describes the argument held by some that the United States has “residual sovereignty over Taiwan” as the victors after WWII and therefore Taiwan has been and is currently a military territory of the United States. After describing this view and the evidence purportedly substantiating it, Chen goes on to explain how it is “counter to the course of U.S. actions since the end of the war” and therefore unsupportable.

In another section, Chen introduces the argument that former president Ma Ying-jeou “embarked on a process of Finlandization in forging closer ties with China’ and Taiwan can and should continue to do so. Finlandization of Taiwan is the idea that Taiwan should steer away from the United States and other traditional allies and become closer with China to check the latter’s desires and ambitions. This time, Chen cites scholars who note the unsuitability of the Finnish model due to the dissimilar conditions and explains their reasoning. While both of these ideas are often summarily dismissed as patently absurd, Chen’s reasonable treatment provides readers with coherent and convincing rationales.

This book can also settle many needless debates. Readers of blogs or online forums on Taiwan inevitably encounter, on a weekly basis, unsubstantiated proclamations of purported immutable facts such as Taiwan is not a state or the United States believes Taiwan is part of China. Instead of rehashing tired arguments, one can now point to Chapter 4 on the evolution of Taiwan statehood to hopefully make the conversation more informed and useful. Again, Chen does not pontificate. He explicates. The book also includes at the end a sizeable section of historical documents and further readings in both Chinese and English that are varied and consequently helpful for readers whether they are Taiwan specialists or new to the area.

Plebiscite Still Viable?

The final chapter contains Chen’s proposal for a plebiscite, which, while based on his recommendations in 1972, “tak[es] into account the evolution of Taiwan statehood since that time amid changing global conditions”. After introducing examples such as Quebec, East Timor, and Scotland, Chen discusses how the plebiscite in Taiwan could be initiated through a dedicated commission that will be in charge of formulating the question, determining voter eligibility, information distribution, and adoption of the outcomes through international support. Is Chen’s recommendation feasible? It is certainly ambitious. Will it take another forty-four years to happen? Maybe. What is for sure is that Chen has made a convincing case throughout the book by showing the historical and current development of Taiwan in the international community, and he should be applauded for this timely, well-argued, and earnest contribution that is worth a close read even for those who do not share his political position.

(Feature photo of The U.S.-Taiwan-China Relationship in International Law and Policy by Lung-chu Chen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)



Bob Kao

M. Bob Kao is a California lawyer and PhD Candidate at the Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London. He has degrees from Wesleyan University, University of California, Berkeley, and University College London. He blogs at Taiwan Law Blog.