- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

Niccolo Machiavelli noted in "The Prince," his 16th century political discourse to rulers, that obfuscation is an essential component of statecraft. Newly elected Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian clearly understands this. His June 28 statement accepting the "One China" principle (with the precise meaning of this to be determined) is an important step toward strategic stability across the Taiwan Straits.
The Mainland Chinese leadership now can demonstrate their statesmanship and draw back from confrontation settling, at least for now, for creative ambiguity. Whether or not they do so will be a harbinger of things to come and should be a litmus test for United States policies in the region.
Certainly there are many things to obfuscate in the relationship between the Taiwanese and their estranged compatriots on the Mainland. The most important of these are the twin realities that Taiwan is a state in all but name and that the citizens of Taiwan do not wish toreunite with Mainland China any time soon and not ever under thedomination of the Chinese Communist Party as presently constituted. The fact that Taiwan is now a functioning democracy puts severe constraints on the flexibility of its leadership, and significant changes must occur on the Mainland before the Taiwanese people would willingly consider reunification.
Unfortunately, reunification of Taiwan with Mainland China is both the highest priority for the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the development the Taiwanese least want. The PRC sees plots everywhere to separate it from its historical territory. The U.S. is torn between principle and practicality: support for a prosperous and democratic Taiwan whose democracy we have encouraged and noninterference is a battle not our own, the joining of which would severely anger the rising regional power (and important trading partner) on the mainland.
The Gordian Knot drew even tighter when the Taiwanese chose Chen Shui-bian as president last month in the first peaceful turnover of power to an opposition political party in Chinese history. His earlier pro-independence statements so aggravated the Mainland that it threatened war if Taiwan declared its independence. Coupled without going Taiwanese President Lee's call for "special state-to-state" relations, the election of Mr. Chen caused severe alarm in the People's Republic, which was only somewhat mollified by Mr. Chen's carefully worded and conciliatory inaugural address. Subsequently, both sides have diminished their rhetoric regarding independence. The issue of Taiwan's independence remains unresolved and is a potential flashpoint for confrontation between the U.S., Mainland China, Taiwan and the region.
Mainland China's policy is that Taiwan is a renegade province that must be reincorporated. Fierce opposition to Taiwanese independence is a matter of pride and passion for Mainland China. It also is a matter of geopolitics: the unspoken but very real fear that an independent Taiwan could become a forward military base for the U.S. or even Japan an unsinkable aircraft carrier, if you will or that the loss of Taiwan would encourage secessionist tendencies elsewhere in the country. The People's Republic is not yet able to conquer Taiwan, but could destroy it if it chose with long-range missile attacks or isolate it with a submarine-based naval blockade. What would they do if sufficiently provoked? The great Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu provided some guidance: "In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good."
There is a middle course, and it is one of which Machiavelli would be proud. It gives the appearance of movement, yet without specific commitments or timetables. It saves face all around and makes more unlikely a war from which no one would gain. It is a proposal both Mainland China and Taiwan can support and it permits all sides to appear statesmanlike. We propose a loose confederation between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China, effective as soon as a document can be agreed to. The preamble of the document would recite the cultural and language ties between them. It would avoid references to statehood, sovereignty and independence, and would renounce the use of military force. The agreement would be reviewed every five years.
A "Chinese Confederation" would provide the basis for ongoing discussions and permit both Taiwan and Mainland China to recede gracefully from confrontation. In the best case, it would also serve as a long-term framework for cooperation between the Mainland and Taiwan. Whether the two political systems ever merge completely is not for the United States to determine, but this interim step would remove some poison from the atmosphere and permit a peaceful evolution to new arrangements, if desired.
A Nobel Peace Prize awaits whomever can solve this strategic dilemma and the award might best be split between Niccolo Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. Meanwhile, the United States should watch closely the reaction of Mainland Chinese leaders to President Chen's olive branch and be governed accordingly as we plan our own policies in the region. The broad policy objective for the United States is strategic stability with as few headaches as possible for the U.S. to resolve.


Mr. Friedman is president of the National Strategy Forum and former chairman of the Committee on Law and National Security of the American Bar Association. Mr. Williams is on the faculty of the Department of Political Science at Loyola University.

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