- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Don’t worry, Jim. I’ll just go out there and confuse ‘em.

President Dwight Eisenhower to his nervous press secretary, James Hagerty, at the height of the Quemoy and Matsu crisis.

So what were last week’s contested election results from Taiwan/Republic of China all about?

What was the significance, if any, of the two questions on the presidential ballot?

Why did the voters in their wisdom re-elect their president (although a recount is in the works) but reject both propositions he campaigned for?

Was this a vote for peace or war, independence or reunification with the mainland, chow mein or egg foo young?

Here are the answers to all your questions about China/Taiwan from a columnist who doesn’t even know how to play mah-jongg:

First I would like to lecture the Taiwanese on the need for clearer election results. Except that, after our own presidential election and Compleat Foofaraw of 2000, no American is in a position to lecture anybody else anywhere on how to conduct a presidential election.

The key thing to remember when considering this Chinese Puzzle is this: Nothing is as it seems.

On the surface, the two questions on the ballot were only meaningless platitudes, like some newspaper columns any editor sees. The first question on the ballot asked if the issues between mainland China and Taiwan should be resolved by peaceful means. The second asked if the mainland and Taiwan should negotiate a settlement of their differences.

Both seem perfectly reasonable propositions. But even addressing the mainland as a separate country could be seen as a provocation by the One China on the other side of the water. Which seems to be the way Taiwan’s voters saw it, too. Neither proposition was adopted. Why ask for trouble?

That the people on Taiwan were actually allowed to vote on a political question, as if the island were a free country instead of a rebellious province, had to be an outrage in the eyes of still technically communist People’s Republic of China.

Besides, there was another clause in that first proposition on the ballot, and it was sure to inflame the regime on the mainland, a k a “The One and Only China”:

“Should mainland China refuse to withdraw the missiles it has aimed at Taiwan and to openly renounce the use of force against us, would you agree that the government should acquire more advanced antimissile weapons to strengthen Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities?”

Uh oh. There is nothing more offensive in some parts of the world than open talk of self-defense. The proposition might as well have read: “Would you agree it’s time to taunt the dragon?”

There’s a good reason no previous government on Taiwan has ever held such a referendum. Just asking questions like these annoys Beijing. It decided this would be a good time to stage some naval maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait — in cooperation with the French, who are always eager to help.

Washington, like Beijing, wasn’t keen on this referendum, either. It might be Taiwan’s voters who were issuing the dare, but American forces would be called on to back it up if the Chinese reacted by storming the island. Washington has promised to defend Taiwan, but does that promise hold if Taiwan provokes the attack?

No need to answer that question. Clarity can be the enemy of peace in these foggy matters. Better to keep both sides too uncertain to risk war. (Occidentals can be inscrutable, too.)

Washington says it still has a One China policy, but it’s not overly specific about which is the One — the People’s Republic on the mainland or the real one on Taiwan. No need to go into detail. Better to let sleeping dragons lie.

Thank goodness, the voters of Taiwan proved more restrained than their ostensibly re-elected president, who would really like to declare Taiwan independent but doesn’t dare. The voters turned down both his mischievous propositions. Clever people, these Chinese. Besides, every day Taiwan grows more independent in every way but name. (Officially it’s still the Republic of China.)

Call it a happy ending. And a victory for American foreign policy, which in that part of the world used to be summed up as Strategic Ambiguity, and now is just plain, simple, direct Ambiguity. Any difference is, well, ambiguous. Hey, it beats a clear war. There is much to be said for remaining inscrutable.

No need to thank me. Glad to have cleared clear all that up.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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