It is campaign season in Taiwan. With opposition candidate Ma Ying-jeou the favorite to win next year’s presidential election, President Chen Shui-bian is pushing a referendum on Taiwanese membership in the United Nations. The measure is roiling politics at home and international relations abroad — with America stuck in the middle between Taipei and the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan represents left-over business from the late 19th century, when Tokyo seized the island of Taiwan in a war against what once was a great imperial power. Japan’s rule came to an abrupt end in August 1945. Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government reasserted Beijing’s authority over Taiwan before turning the island into its final redoubt after its 1949 ouster from the mainland by Mao Tse-tung’s communist forces.
For decades both the PRC and Republic of China claimed to represent the legitimate government of all China. The U.S. backed Taipei, but in 1971 President Richard Nixon played the famous “China card” against the Soviet Union, turning the ROC’s UN membership over to the PRC. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter switched official recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
Nevertheless, Washington preserved an unofficial defense shield behind which Taiwan prospered. The U.S. continued to sell weapons to the Republic of China; the Seventh Fleet threatened to interdict any Chinese attempt to threaten the island.
For years Beijing was in no hurry to resolve Taiwan’s status. But with Taipei’s democratization came eventual victory for the Democratic Progressive Party, which long backed Taiwanese independence. Popular sentiment favors Taiwan’s separate identity.
At the same time, China’s ongoing transformation has raised popular expectations while undercutting the communist regime’s legitimacy. With the passing of the revolutionary generation, Beijing’s new leaders are vulnerable to nationalistic popular and hawkish military sentiments. The PRC’s rhetoric is growing more strident, backed by a military modernization program directed against the island.
PRESIDENT CHEN’S PLANNED REFERENDUM on Taiwanese membership in the UN has sparked a new round of recriminations between Beijing and Taipei. Two weeks ago the General Assembly refused to add Taiwan’s petition to its agenda, but no matter. Chen says the issue is “a fight between justice and evil within the international community.” Perhaps, but buffeted by election controversies and corruption allegations, the Chen government has few other political cards to play. Ma has been forced on the defensive. He says he also supports UN membership for the island, but with an important difference — applying as the Republic of China instead of as Taiwan.
Beijing announced that it was preparing for a “serious situation,” declaring: “We absolutely will not permit any person to separate Taiwan from the motherland by any means.” At his Sydney meeting with President George W. Bush, Chinese President Hu Jintao was said by his government to have stressed “that this year and next year is going to be a highly sensitive and possibly dangerous period of the situation in the Taiwan Strait.”
Ironically, the Bush administration is siding with Beijing. Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey said the U.S. is “concerned very much about this step that Taiwan has undertaken.” Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte calls the referendum a “mistake” that could lead to “an alteration of the status quo,” particularly “a declaration of independence of Taiwan,” which Washington opposes. The administration reportedly backed its rhetorical displeasure by refusing to allow President Chen to make a refueling stop in the continental U.S. on his way to Central America.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas J. Christensen attempted to soften the blow by saying the U.S. was not against Taiwan resisting PRC pressure, but “Taipei needs to push back intelligently and in a sophisticated manner that plays to its strength.” Yet being a democracy is one of Taiwan’s principal strengths.
In principle, it is ridiculous for the U.S. to tell a democratic friend not to hold a referendum on whatever issue it desires. Indeed, at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, President Bush urged the assembled nations to promote democratic values. Taiwanese President Chen observed: “As a leader in the community of democracies, why can’t the U.S. say no to China?”
THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT, so to speak, is Washington’s implicit commitment to defend Taipei, which raises the stakes exponentially of any confrontation with the PRC. Any rupture in relations would have unpredictable but costly consequences. Trade between America and the PRC is extensive and growing; Beijing absorbs a large share of U.S. Treasury bonds. China also is playing an increased international political and environmental role.
Even worse is the possibility of military confrontation. Although the U.S. remains far ahead of China in military capabilities, the PRC is not Panama, Serbia, or Iraq. Rather, Beijing is a nuclear-armed power, with rapidly improving military forces, expanding regional influence, and exploding national confidence.
True, some Americans believe that China is a paper tiger and would back down in any confrontation. The PRC wouldn’t retaliate if the U.S. recognized Taiwan, contends John Bolton: thus, such a step “could avoid the cross-strait situation becoming riskier and more dangerous for the U.S. as well as for the people of Taiwan.” But some in Beijing have a mirror image view of America: the U.S. would not risk Los Angeles to protect Taipei, as a Chinese general once informed an American diplomat.
Washington policymakers underestimate at their (and our) peril Taiwan’s role as a symbol for Chinese nationalism. The island is seen as the last piece of the country detached during the era of aggressive foreign imperialism. Chinese public opinion appeared to push the leadership towards confrontation with America over the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the collision of the Chinese fighter with the EP-3 spy plane. Today’s uninspiring gerontocrats would not want to appear weak if directly challenged over Taiwan.
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