- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Bush administration has a strong record of working to establish democracy abroad. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were motivated by several factors, but in both cases an authoritarian regime was toppled and a foundation laid for a new democratic government.

This record made it all the more striking when President Bush recently seemed to side with the authoritarian Chinese government over the democratic Taiwan. The president’s statements discouraged Taiwan from moving toward independence and even indicated displeasure with Taiwan’s move to measure public sentiment on Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan through a ballot referendum in the upcoming election.

The diplomacy across the Taiwan Straits is complex. Still, it is impossible to reconcile the Bush administration’s fervent support for democracy over tyranny in the Middle East and President Bush’s seeming support for authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. Fortunately, the United States has the opportunity in 2004 to establish a morally consistent, diplomatically sound, and economically beneficial position vis-a-vis Taiwan and China.

The complex history of U.S. relations with Taiwan and China literally fills volumes, but the present state of affairs is clear. Mainland China is ruled by an authoritarian regime, which has built an impressive record of economic success, but an equally troubling record of human rights abuses on a grand scale — Tiananmen Square Massacre, the domination of Tibet, etc.

Until a decade and a half ago, Taiwan was also ruled by an authoritarian regime, but in 2000 it completed the transition to a full-fledged democracy, elected a president from the opposition party, and peacefully transferred power.

On its face, the choice between perhaps the world’s most renowned authoritarian regime and a vibrant democracy would seem an easy one, but such is not the case. Taiwan is an island off of the Chinese coast that was controlled by the remnants of the Chinese Nationalists after they fled the Mainland after the communist revolution.

Despite the island’s de facto independence for half of a century and its completely independent political system, economy and population of 23 million people, China continues to insist Taiwan is part of China.

But many in Taiwan tire of this obvious fiction. Taiwan’s current president and his followers make Beijing nervous by continuing to hint they may declare “the emperor has no clothes” and formally proclaim Taiwan an independent country.

This certainly puts the United States as the world’s foremost democracy and the historic defender of Taiwan in an uncomfortable situation. If Taiwan pursued and independent course it could force, at best, a nasty diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing and, at worst, spark a military conflict that could draw in the United States.

This is why President Bush chose to caution Taiwan against moving toward independence and even against condemning China’s missile deployments directed at Taiwan through a referendum.

The current Bush position goes too far, however, and is fraught with problems in addition to the obvious moral inconsistency. It makes the United States appear to be kowtowing to China’s unreasonable stance on Taiwan. This will likely be recognized throughout Asia as evidence the United States is largely ceding its role in Asia, making it all the more likely countries in the region will scramble to curry favor with Beijing regardless of U.S. interests.

More threateningly, by seeming to bow to China just as more independently minded forces are on the rise in Taiwan, the move risks tempting China to think the United States may not defend Taiwan if Beijing chose to forcibly assert its territorial claim.

In short, the Bush action to preserve an increasingly out-of-date status quo may actually destabilize the balance of power in the region rather than maintain it.

All is not lost, however. The core of U.S.-Taiwan economic relations for three decades has been a thriving economic relationship. The United States has almost a dozen Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) — agreements to eliminate tariffs and trade barriers on a bilateral basis — under negotiation around the world.

Taiwan has indicated it desires an FTA with the United States and it offers a larger trading relationship than any of the FTA partners currently negotiating with the United States. The U.S. International Trade Commission has concluded such an agreement would benefit both Taiwan and the United States.

A U.S.-Taiwan FTA would be an economic plus for both Taipei and Washington and simultaneously send an unmistakable U.S. signal of support for the struggling democracy. Certainly, China would not be happy to see such an agreement, but under the World Trade Organization such a pact is clearly permissible.

This is an election year in both the United States and Taiwan. It would provide a golden opportunity for two democracies to demonstrate the strength of their relationship. Such an agreement may not please China, but there must be as clear limit on how far the United States goes to appease China.

Greg Mastel is chief international trade adviser at Miller & Chevalier and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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