- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

''Taiwan stands up," said President Chen Shui-bian in his Inaugural address on May 20.

Consciously paraphrasing the words of Mao Tse-tung announcing the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mr. Chen quietly and temperately served notice he would not succumb to Beijing's pressures to accept its ground rules on cross-Taiwan Strait negotiations. For years, the PRC has repeated with robotic insistence that Taipei must accept the verbal formula of "one China" as a prerequisite to "acceptable" discussions. Mr. Chen's first speech as the 10th president of the Republic of China makes it clear he will not play that game.

Neither did Mr. Chen go out of his way to poke a sharp stick in Beijing's eye. He did not endorse a "special state-to-state relationship" as had Lee Teng-hui, his immediate predecessor. He did not proclaim "one China, one Taiwan." And he did not assert the dreaded phrase "declaration of independence." To the contrary, Mr. Chen expressly repeated his prior approach that the Republic of China will not do any of these things, so long as the PRC "has no intention to use military force against Taiwan."

Relations across the Taiwan Strait was only one aspect, and certainly not the predominant one, in the Inaugural address. But Mr. Chen's approach may create an opportunity to get past the rhetorical wasteland in which both the parties and the United States have been wandering for the past several years. Indeed, abjuring this stylized, formulaic approach to diplomacy altogether is likely to be far more productive for both the PRC and Taiwan. Dropping magical formulas and concentrating on practical results is also certainly far more characteristic of the American style of "shirt-sleeves" diplomacy, and may actually permit the United States to play a more important role than at present.

Diplomatic stratagems come in many forms, but one of the most frequently recurring is the ploy where one side lays down prerequisites that the other side must accept before substantive negotiations can actually begin. This is, in effect, the PRC's strategy in droning on about "one China": They believe acceptance of the slogan effectively determines the outcome of the negotiations. Not surprisingly, almost no one on Taiwan accepts Beijing's "one China" approach because, in reality, it means "one PRC." By contrast, one can understand why some accept, for example, "one China with various interpretations," such as China reunited under a free and democratic constitution. One can also understand "Taiwanese independence," which is just as effectively intended to determine the outcome as Beijing's interpretation of "one China." What one cannot understand is why American political leaders or diplomats should ever engage at all in this theater, especially at Beijing's behest.

The best negotiating posture is almost invariably that "nothing is agreed to unless and until everything is agreed to." Allowing the parties to put ideas on the table and then to take them back again if other aspects of the negotiations are not going well maximizes both flexibility and creativity. It loosens inhibitions about experimenting because it lowers the stakes on committing a mistake. By contrast, sparring about two-word formulas or short phrases without engaging on the underlying substantive issues is about as fruitful as most metaphysical speculation. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with metaphysics, it has no place in the concrete world of international power politics, which is really what is at stake in the cross-Straits dialogue.

Look at the example of Beijing-Taipei negotiations. By being caught in an endless loop of the parties incessantly saying "X" vs. "not X" to each other (or spelunking for formulations that say precisely the same thing in slightly different words), the sides are not only not accomplishing anything, they may actually be increasing tensions. Some believe this is actually Beijing's secret objective; if so, it is all the more reason to end the word games.

By not accepting Beijing's gambit, Mr. Chen may have provided a way out of the rhetorical maze. He neither acquiesced in Beijing's ground rules, nor attempted to define his own. At least from the American perspective, we should welcome this development, and let Beijing's leaders know the burden of responsibility for renewed progress in cross-Strait relations now rests squarely on them.

John Bolton is the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. During the Bush administration, he served as the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

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