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Taiwan is too strident
in its opposition to China



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

April 5, 2006

LONDON - If the debate in Taiwan about its political future has descended to the level of birds and animals it must have some meaning. Perhaps it is nothing more than an expression of impotence, although an unnecessary one. This country, threatened and claimed by China, corralled into submissive behaviour by the United States, is forced to make its main point by any means at hand - that it should be free to exert its own will. "Taiwan has stood up," said President Chen Shui-bian on the day of his first inauguration six years ago and most people here believe that, even as they differ as to how to put it into practice.

But how you fight this struggle perhaps needs more nuance and restraint than Chen gives it.

Two days ago the government announced that it was refusing the gift of two pandas offered by Beijing in a peace-making gesture. According to the government this was because Taiwan has no suitable place to put them. But a few days before, Chen, seemingly contradictory, said that China should use its military budget for panda conservation. If he were serious about this, a modest step might have been to gracefully accept the pandas. Not surprisingly, the issue has split the nation.

Two days ago as well, the government concluded a medical conference on avian flu- Taiwan sits astride one the principal routes for bird migration. The intent of this conference was also to poke China in the eye, but this time more constructively than is often the case. Why should Taiwan tolerate being excluded, at China's insistence, from membership of the World Health Organization? For many days at the onset of the SARS crisis, which claimed over 180 Taiwanese lives, the director-general of WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland, ex prime minister of Norway, refused to accept even a phone call from the Taiwanese minister of health. As one senior doctor told me, "the country became one big isolation hospital. At the onset of the crisis, we had no help and no outside expertise at all".

One of Taiwan's troubles is that it too easily exaggerates its vulnerability. It is a great moral and political wrong that Taiwan is excluded from the WHO, indeed from the UN itself, from where it was summarily ejected when President Richard Nixon made his historic peace with Mao tse Tung. But Taiwan has also carved out a great deal of economic and even political space for itself. It has become, despite a population less than half the size of Britain's, an industrial and technological giant with over $130 billion of foreign exports each year. The last few years it has grown faster than South Korea. Its investments of capital, machinery and personnel in China largely made possible China's own technological revolution. Despite its isolation from the WHO, it has a fine national health service, only second in the world to Sweden's according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Politically it becomes maturer by the year. Its democracy appears to have put down deeper roots than many much older ones. The human rights abuses prevalent under the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and his son are history. The press is sophisticated and the NGO sector thrives. Justice is honest, if at times erratic.

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The political debate is essentially three sided, although only two political parties really count. There is perhaps 20% of the voting population who would like to see Taiwan declare its full and legal independence and seek admission to the UN. There is perhaps 15% who want to see reunification with China. But the vast majority, fairly evenly split between the two parties, support the status quo. Each time I visit here I find that sentiment growing stronger. After all the status quo works, it keeps the peace, it allows great material and personal advance and it doesn't stop Taiwanese travelling (there were over 1.5 million flights in and out of Taiwan last year including 6 million visits of Taiwanese to China).

The Beijing dragon can and does growl. But it wouldn't dare bite, despite China's arms build up and its 800 missiles pointing at Taiwan. China knows it could never swallow mighty Taiwan. And it knows that the U.S. with its off shore submarines and 72 F-15s based in nearby Okinawa would never let it try.

So why play this game of poking and provoking China, which Chen too often does? He should save his fire for big issues like the- Beijing opposed- planned rewrite of parts of Chiang Kai-shek's constitution, which will be a useful step forward in the quest for sovereignty. A less strident attitude would suit Taiwan better.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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


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