- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The U.S. presidential inauguration in January 2005 will certainly draw world attention, but the American presidential inauguration is not the only one of note in the next seven months. Tomorrow, Taiwan’s President Chen Sui-bien will be inaugurated to his second term as president. The U.S. presidential election overshadows all others, but the implications of President Chen’s re-election are far reaching for global democracy and U.S. policy in the region. Mr. Chen’s second term provides a unique opportunity for the United States to correct policy mistakes it has made in the Taiwan Straits.

The last six months have seen an unpredictable drama unfold in Taiwan with the United States and China playing important roles. The Bush administration seemed quite peeved with President Chen at times during the election. Oddly, the Bush administration seemed at times to be siding with authoritarian China over democratic Taiwan. Stranger still, Mr. Chen won reelection by the smallest of margins after an election-eve assassination attempt that left him wounded. The ensuing election controversy made the 2000 U.S. controversy over Florida election results seem almost tame.

Still with the dust settling, it seems clear that Mr. Chen will hold the reins of power in Taiwan for another term. It also seems clear that the Taiwanese electorate is increasingly tired of decades of bullying by Beijing. It now appears that even China’s tacit support is the kiss-of-death to a Taiwanese political candidate. Given China’s heavy-handed actions to stifle democracy in Hong Kong, one can hardly criticize Taiwanese voters — and Mr. Chen — for chaffing under the myth of Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan.

Apparently concerned that Mr. Chen would spark a crisis with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Bush team took a number of steps to stifle Mr. Chen’s increasingly independent posture toward Beijing. Perhaps thinking Mr. Chen would not be reelected, the Bush team appeared to lean in favor of his political opponents and even Beijing by criticizing some of Mr. Chen’s initiatives.

But this political bet proved incorrect. Mr. Chen won reelection and he and his supporters seem certain to be — if not in permanent control of Taiwan — at least a powerful political force for the foreseeable future. This puts the United States in the awkward position of seeming to oppose the ambition of one of the region’s few democratically elected leaders to find a place in the sun for his country while kowtowing to the far-from-democratic PRC. American values and indeed even long-term interests seem poorly served by this situation. How can the world’s greatest democracy — often willing to use military force to promote democratic values — now be positioned against democratic forces in one of the world’s most important regions?

The answer very simply is that it cannot. The United States must find a way to recognize the tremendous achievements of democracy in Taiwan. The badly out of date “one-China” policy, which some interpret as holding that Taiwan is a pawn of Beijing, does put some constraints on U.S. policy. Still, immediately abandoning this policy is a step that President Bush — or for that matter a President Kerry — is unlikely to take. Even within the constraints of the current policy framework, however, there are steps that the United States can take to show its approval for Taiwan’s efforts to embody American values.

The bedrock of U.S.-Taiwanese relations is the now 25-year-old Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Virtually every major premise upon which that legislation was based has now changed. Taiwan has transformed itself from dictatorship to democracy, China’s strategic role has shifted from tenuous ally to potential adversary, and the United States has become the world’s only superpower. The TRA could and should be amended to ensure a flow of defensive weaponry goes to Taiwan to meet new missile and sea-borne threats from the PRC, establish new terms for U.S. representation in Taiwan, and allow more visits from Taiwanese officials.

To promote a shared interest in democracy and reliable elections, the United States and Taiwan could promote exchanges of election officials and technology. To build on the strongest linkage between Taiwan and the United States — trade and commerce — Washington could launch negotiations to conclude a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Taiwan. The Bush administration has launched more than a dozen FTAs and studies suggest that a U.S.-Taiwan FTA would benefit both countries.

Beijing will likely protest any step Washington takes to embrace Taiwan, but the steps suggested here are all certainly well within U.S. rights even under the constraints of the “one-China” policy. These initiatives would reverse the impression that Washington favors Beijing over Taipei. Especially when American lives are being sacrificed to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is morally obliged to take these small steps to promote and celebrate democracy in Southeast Asia.

Greg Mastel is chief international trade adviser at Miller and Chevalier and a long-time observer and commentator on Taiwan and China.

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