- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

A new war of words has erupted over Taiwan. President Chen Shui-bian has committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting an option for his people to hold a referendum on independence. This is a problem because communist Beijing holds that there is only “One China” and that Taiwan is part of it. The Taiwanese, who are happy with their free, capitalist democratic system, think otherwise.

On Wednesday, Chinese Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian warned that “Taiwan independence means war” and that Beijing was willing to risk diplomatic isolation, economic recession, a loss of foreign investment and the 2008 Olympics to prevent independence. All the elements of Chinese opera have long been hallmarks of cross-strait relations on both sides, but the situation could be entering a more dangerous period. Whether Chinese passion and hotheadedness remain mere political theater pivots on the steadfastness of Washington’s policy on Taiwan.

While Mr. Chen is chastised for being a troublemaker, what conveniently is overlooked by most observers is who the belligerent is in the standoff. Taiwan does not threaten mainland China with invasion. It does not threaten to destroy mainland China — and couldn’t if it wanted to. The same cannot be said for the intention or military stance of the island’s communist big brother. Beijing insists that the People’s Republic of China will never relinquish its option to use its military to forcibly reunify Taiwan with greater China. To underscore its point, the People’s Liberation Army has deployed 496 missiles across the strait that are capable of badly damaging the Taiwanese capital and important parts of the nation’s infrastructure.

For his part, Mr. Chen’s lack of diplomacy is better suited for a scrappy opposition leader than the president of a nation. That said, he was elected by his people, and many of his unorthodox policy positions are popular. The referendum issue reflects a certain desperation. Taiwanese fear that Washington is weakening its resolve to defend the island democracy. This week, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong stated that Beijing hopes that the United States will stop selling arms to Taiwan. Some statements by American officials have made Taiwanese nervous in this regard. For example, Therese Shaheen, chief of the Washington office for the U.S. mission in Taipei, said that Taiwan needed to do more to guarantee its own defense and depend less on American intervention in case of war.

Today, the protection of the U.S. 7th Fleet makes it impossible for Chinese troops to cross the strait to get boots on the ground for an invasion. But there is worry that some in the Bush administration want to remove this decades-old defense shield. According to Gary Schmitt of the Project for the New American Century, the administration is considering a policy shift that would rule out defending Taiwan if Beijing claimed force was provoked by Taipei. What constitutes provocation is ambiguous. The hedge would be dangerous if it became U.S. policy because it signals to Beijing that America is not resolute in its commitment to defend Taiwan. This would make war more likely — not less. Yet the policy change is being pushed by two of President Bush’s most important advisers for the region: James Moriarty, the National Security Council’s Asia director,andDougPall, Washington’s top diplomat in Taipei.

U.S. trade with China is often defended by arguing that more economic freedom will eventually make Chinese demand greater political freedom. In this context, policy-makers wax optimistically about the greatness of a future democratic China. But there already is a free, democratic China — it’s called Taiwan. Its elections and liberal market economy set the example for what the Chinese mainland could be if it were not communist. The future of China — whether it will ever be one country or not — needs to reflect the current Taiwanese paradigm. The assault on political freedom in Hong Kong since its handover to Beijing in 1997 has shown the Taiwanese that reunification under Beijing’s terms would doom their liberty as well.

The people in Taiwan consider themselves Taiwanese, not Chinese. The younger generation, which has never lived in China, does not hold out the hopes for reunification that their grandparents did. For all practical purposes, Taiwan is its own country already, with a self-governing democracy. Defending this system should remain what it has been — the cornerstone of America’s China policy.

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