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Everyone Can Win With Taiwan




April 25, 2001

LONDON - So in the end the Bush Administration decided it was not going to approve the sale to Taiwan of the much-touted Aegis-class destroyers and their state-of-the-art missile tracking system. The deciding reason was political, although there is evidence a-plenty they wouldn't have done Taiwan that much good in the military arena either. They wouldn't be delivered for another seven or eight years and it that time China could have deployed enough missiles to easily overwhelm their capabilities.

Simply put, they would be nothing more than a political provocation - a hint of other defensive systems to come- the anti-ballistic missile shield around America and theatre missile defence around Japan and Taiwan. All of which in the end will be similarly self-defeating, as China builds more nuclear-tipped rockets to overwhelm them. Along the way the political relationship would deteriorate from "strategic partner" (Clinton) to "strategic competitor" (Bush) to "enemy" (future).

Self-evidently there is neither logic nor good reason in this game and it makes much more sense to look at the underlying causes of what brought all this boil and how to return to the status quo ante before the Taiwan Strait confrontation of 1995-96 pushed what had seemed a sensible accommodation off the deep end.

In retrospect, it is more than clear that the origins of this confrontation - which appeared to begin with China firing missiles near Taiwan and President Bill Clinton ordering the deployment of U.S. battleships in the Taiwan Strait - lay in Taiwanese lobbying of the U.S. Congress and subsequent Congressional pressure on the president. U.S. policy towards Taiwan had been allowed to drift and Taiwan, under President Lee Teng-hui, had been able, effectively unchallenged, to build up a head of steam in its quest for independence.

The White House foolishly succumbed to the pressure to give Mr Lee a visa to enter the U.S., thus departing from its understanding with Beijing on U.S.-Taiwan relations. It seemed to suggest to Beijing that Washington might well be on the way to abandoning its one-China policy and the firing of the missiles did in fact bring Clinton to his senses. The 1997 and 1998 summits quickly followed, with Clinton saying in Shanghai that the U.S. did not support Taiwanese independence.

Although pretty clear at the time, it is now little disputed that Lee Teng-hui was not responding to Taiwanese public opinion but trying to lead it. Indeed, Chen Shui-bian, his opponent in the general election of 2000, confronting the anxieties of a nervous public, had to abandon his own long-held position in favour of independence in order to win the presidency.

The main trouble with years of unproductive jousting is that is has obscured the essentials. The issue that now presents itself is the same one that was one table before Lee temporarily up-ended it: how to turn Taiwan's autonomy from a negative into a positive factor. It could be made all the easier if diplomacy could deliver a pledge from China not to use force in return for Taiwan pledging not to declare independence. Then it would be possible to conceive of Taiwan agreeing in the not too distant future to negotiations over confederation with China. (If the U.S. stops continuously provoking China with new arms sales to Taiwan that, in a communiqué signed by President Ronald Reagan, it promised not to, then that in itself would make a turn in Chinese policy rather easier.)

China, for its part, has to realise it can never force re-unification; on the contrary, it has to woo Taiwan, to accept that the island must always have a high degree of autonomy, indeed much more autonomy than does Hong Kong. There can never be any turning back of the clock on fully-fledged democracy and thus Taiwan's sovereignty. It means that, unlike Hong Kong, there will be no Beijing-appointed chief executive, Basic Law or diktats to the courts.

Taiwan, too, must also be allowed to keep command over its own defence forces, at least for a decade or two. Indeed, a date on the winding down of military independence has probably to be fudged. China, moreover, has to realise that an essential part of the wooing process is progress at home on the mainland in improving its respect for human rights and furthering the practice of democracy, which it has already pioneered at the local level, if not always successfully.

It is win-win politics of this kind that all sides are in urgent need of. The fact that Mr Bush turned down the Aegis request suggests that this new Administration is keeping its options open for more creative diplomacy. It should move on without more ado.

I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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