Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Ours is a topsy-turvy world. You would think that the United States, leader of the free world, would offer all-out support to two threatened small democracies in Asia Israel and Taiwan a continent where there are but a handful of free societies living under a genuine rule of law. But September 11, understandably, has changed American priorities; whether for the better or the worse, we shall have to see.

Taiwan is a case in point. Is it expendable? This island, slightly smaller in area than Maryland and Delaware combined, has created the world’s 17th-largest economy. Far more significantly, it has created the first democracy in China’s history, an outcome about as welcome to Beijing as a locust plague. And to complicate the situation further there is mounting opinion among Taiwanese voters, covertly encouraged by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for a formal declaration of independence from mainland China. Such an action could precipitate an outbreak of hostilities in the straits of Taiwan.

China expects Taiwan to accept its sclerotic communist rule under the slogan of “one China” while offering dubious agreement to Taiwan’s claim to the right to pursue an independent democratic course. Imagine Taiwan’s 23 million population, about as high tech a society as ours, willingly accepting the rule of a communist dictatorship which has just closed 17,500 Internet cafes throughout China because, said the government, people were getting hooked on computer games and pornographic sites. Another 28,000 Internet cafes are being monitored by China’s secret police. Such repression puts China into the same class as the defeated Taliban. Yet, as they flock to the polls December 1 to vote in another multiparty parliamentary election, Taiwanese are worried whether they have become expendable since September 11. They have reason to worry.

On Oct. 18, the New York Times headlined a story about the “Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum: Bush’s New Focus Requires A Shift in His China Policy.” The story quoted a close adviser to President Bush as saying: “You won’t hear much about dissidents, or Taiwan, the dust-up with the spy-plane. He can’t afford that now. The Chinese have never been in a better mood to rebuild their relationship with Washington, and they know that now the president needs them, too.”

How quickly things change. When Mr. Bush took office in January, he telephoned every major world leader except President Jiang Zemin, a signal about how the new Bush administration felt about China. I’m sure that, thanks to Osama bin Laden, the phone bill between Washington and Beijing these days must be astronomical. And why the change? Because had China told Pakistan to reject the American bid for an alliance against the Taliban there would be no Pakistan-American cooperation today. We must assume that relations today between China and the United States have never been better.

Yet, not long ago, U.S. criticism of China over human rights violations, PRC criticism over weapons sales to Taiwan and arrest of U.S.-based Chinese scholars, all these and other episodes, had driven U.S.-China relations to a low point. And while all seems lovey dovey today between the United States and China, the unpublicized Communist Party reaction to the World Trade Center attacks has been viciously anti-American. Video disc documentaries, produced in huge quantities by Xinhua, Beijing Television and China Central Television contained this commentary: “This is the America the whole world has wanted to see. Blood debts have been repaid in blood. America has bombed other countries and used its hegemony to deny the natural rights of others without paying the price. Who until now has dared to avenge the hurts inflicted by unaccountable Americans?” Another disc has this commentary: “We will never fear these people again; they have been shown to be soft-bellied paper tigers.”

And there is the alarming appraisal by Gen. Chi Haotian, vice chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission, of future China-U.S. relations: “Seen from the changes in the world situation and the United States’ hegemonic strategy for creating monopolarity, war is inevitable.” And Allen Whiting has written in the China Quarterly that “war games played against the American [enemy] have been standard since 1991.”

Taiwan, which Beijing calls a “renegade” province, is the issue that threatens the U.S.-China alliance because Taiwan has been an American protectorate since 1979. Paradoxically, it is Taiwan alone that could turn heated rhetoric into flying missiles by issuing a unilateral declaration of independence. For I believe that thanks to its victorious bid for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China is prepared to soft-pedal the reunification issue, especially now that the Taiwan government is allowing unlimited investment of any amount into coastal China. And what that means is that “Taipei’s economic sovereignty may be dealt a body blow,” writes Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a highly regarded Asian journalist. “Beijing is confident that the momentum is going its way because the mainland economy is thriving while that of Taiwan is deteriorating.”

The elections on Dec. 1 will afford a glimpse into the future of Taiwan and Sino-American relations.

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