- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

BEIJING | As China and Taiwan prepare to resume formal talks to strengthen economic ties, U.S. officials and military strategists are keeping a close watch on a honeymoon period between the two enemies whose relationship has embroiled the United States since the days of President Harry Truman.

The May 28 decision to reopen negotiations that stalled in 1995 provided the climax of a historic meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and the chairman of Taiwan´s Nationalist Party, Wu Poh-Hsiung.

The unprecedented meeting capped a dramatic easing of tensions that began with the election of Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan in March.

The U.S. can’t help but relish the possibility of stability across the Taiwan Strait.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 obliges Washington to help Taiwan defend itself from China.

The front line of Washington’s obligation rests with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Honolulu, and on more than one occasion since Taiwan and China split in 1949, the U.S. Navy has intervened to prevent war.

Today, however, growing economic ties within a strategic triangle formed by China, Taiwan and the United States would make an outbreak of hostilities far more costly to all sides than in 1950, when Mr. Truman sent the Navy to block an anticipated Chinese attack.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, who heads U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on May 28 that he was cautiously optimistic about recent developments, including the Hu-Wu meeting.

“You all expect us to be a little bit conservative and reserved, and you want us to be prepared in case what we’re seeing is a little bit rose-colored - tinted through rose-colored glasses,” Adm. Keating said.

“But we are encouraged by the dialogue between the new government in Taiwan and the current government in the People’s Republic of China.”

In Honolulu, Cmdr. Jeffrey Breslau, chief spokesman for the Pacific Command, told The Washington Times that the command “is taking a long view” of China-Taiwan relations.

Translation: “We are trying to get across the point that increased tensions don’t benefit anybody,” said one U.S. officer, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The delicacy of the U.S. position was illustrated at a conference of Asia-Pacific defense ministers held May 30 to June 1 in Singapore.

Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army of China, acknowledged, “There have been positive developments in the situation in Taiwan, which leads to a good momentum in cross-Strait relations.”

But in the next breath, Gen. Ma added: “At the same time, secessionist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’ will continue with separation movements, and the serious mental impact of ‘Taiwan independence’ still affects Taiwanese society. That said, the mission of opposing and curbing secessionist activities remains strenuous.”

At one point, Gen. Ma (no known relation to Taiwan’s president) also said: “We do not engage in arms race. We are military threat to no other country. We shall never seek for hegemony or expansion.”

That prompted a response from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who also attended the Singapore conference, to bring up the growth of China’s missile arsenal.

“I don´t know what you use them for if it´s not for offensive capability,” Mr. Gates told reporters. “It´s hard to see an intercontinental ballistic missile as a defensive weapon.”

China is thought to have at least 1,000 shorter-range missiles pointed at Taiwan.

In 1996, when China began shooting missiles at shipping lanes off both ends of the island, which is about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, during the campaign for Taiwan’s first-ever democratic presidential election, the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region to cool things down.

Larry Wortzel, a former Army intelligence officer who heads the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, says China-Taiwan relations remains a key issue in U.S. military planning.

“We’re still strengthening our presence on Guam because of increased Chinese naval activity and new Chinese submarine deployments,” Mr. Wortzel said.

Talk about Taiwanese independence or China’s past threats to use force to reunify with Taiwan will likely be absent from talks June 12 to 14 in Beijing.

Instead, the meetings are expected to focus on the opening of regular, direct charter flights between the two sides, allowing about 3,000 Chinese mainland tourists to visit the island each day - measures that will boost Taiwan´s economy.

Analysts anticipate little difficulty in the two sides sealing these economic deals, which are intended to establish the trust required to tackle the much thornier issues of sovereignty and Taiwan´s diplomatic standing in the international community.

“As good will and kindness build up, the chances will grow stronger for both sides to resolve their differences and even disputes,” said an editorial in China Daily, the mainland´s official English-language newspaper.

But China´s critics, particularly those favoring outright independence for Taiwan, contend that Beijing´s recent conciliatory approach is nothing more than an attempt to polish its image ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August.

Mr. Wu´s trip to China served no point “other than to give Beijing a fresh propaganda coup and soft-soap Taiwanese and anyone else willing to pay attention into believing that China has only good intentions,” said an editorial in the Taipei Times.

China´s strategy after the Olympics could change at any time, says Adam Segal, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The strategy is not set, and it is not made in a vacuum. While Beijing clearly gets - and needs - some positive PR by being flexible on Taiwan, long-term strategy after the Olympics will be in part determined by how Beijing sees Taiwan´s reaction,” Mr. Segal said.

“So if Taiwan seems to be more open to Beijing, then Beijing is more likely to take a flexible stance. But it can always be reversed.”

The possibility of China making a significant concession is not out of the question. Taiwan has been pushing for observer status at meetings of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) for the past decade, only to have China block the move repeatedly.

However, Mr. Hu hinted May 28 that China could be prepared to allow Taiwan to play a role in international organizations, making a specific reference to the WHO.

If China does back down, it will be with the knowledge that Mr. Ma, Taiwan’s new president, has ruled out any prospect of unification in his lifetime, content to maintain the status quo.

Skeptics think this fundamental sticking point could prove impossible for the Communist Party to overlook in the long term and are arguing that China continues to discredit Taiwan´s de facto sovereignty.

They say Taiwan’s Mr. Wu met China’s Mr. Hu in Mr. Hu’s capacity as head of the Chinese Communist Party rather than as president - a point of protocol to bolster China’s claim that the two governments are not on an equal footing.

“In cooperating with the [Nationalist Party], the purpose of these measures is to corrode Taiwan´s sovereignty and diminish the status of the Taiwanese government,” Taiwan-based political commentator Paul Lin wrote in the Taipei Times.

Another danger for Taiwan, some observers say, is that in its effort to revitalize its economy, it will become too dependent on China, leaving it vulnerable in the future.

However, China is unlikely to exploit any weakness out of concern for its own economic development, says Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

“There is no inclination on anyone´s part to create excessive vulnerability in a relationship, which truly will be a two-way street,” he said.

cRichard Halloran contributed to this report from Honolulu, and Rowan Scarborough contributed from Washington.

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