- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

In his remarks during last month’s Chinese New Year celebrations, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, suggested that given current circumstances, perhaps Taiwan’s moribund National Unification Council should be shut down. This toothless relic of a policy of wishful thinking is all but irrelevant in shaping events or policy in Taiwan or on the mainland. Nevertheless, Mr. Chen’s political opponents and their allies on the mainland seized the opportunity to suggest Mr. Chen was undermining the status quo with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a dangerous move given the ever-present risk of confrontation between the two sides of the strait. In the United States, we call this “making a mountain out of a molehill.” His statement was not as dangerous as it was irrelevant. It was a thought, not a plan.

Having observed Taiwan and its leaders over many years, we find it ironic that Mr. Chen’s comments have received such attention. We say this because despite the labels that opponents have tried to attach to him, Mr. Chen has been perhaps the most responsible adherent to the “status quo” during his six years in office. And he has been the only one to recognize its inviolability in such a formal manner — through a well-received formulation (known as the “four no’s plus one”) both at the beginning of his tenure and after his second inaugural address. Unfortunately, other parties to this longstanding diplomatic conundrum have not felt bound recently by the same sense of responsibility.

For the parties to the Taiwan Strait issue, the “status quo” has not always meant the same thing. In some ways, this has helped prevent conflict for half a century, a period in which Taiwan has seen growing economic prosperity and democratic freedom. But of late, certain actions have been taken that defy anyone’s definition of the status quo — and which go far beyond the words Mr. Chen has used in recent weeks.

Take for example the PRC’s decision to adopt a so-called “Anti-Secession Law” in March of last year, a measure that in effect provides legal authority for China’s leaders to invade Taiwan. Or China’s offer — and the acceptance — of invitations for Taiwan’s opposition leaders to visit Beijing and discuss cross-Strait matters last summer. In both instances the United States stood by Mr. Chen, calling on Beijing to engage in dialogue with Taiwan’s elected leader rather than continue its diplomatic grandstanding — not to mention its overt interference in Taiwan’s domestic politics.

In a unique instance of zoological diplomacy, Mr. Chen’s opponents now want him to accept China’s proposed “gift” of two giant pandas, despite the fact that accepting them on the PRC’s terms would in effect succumb to its vision of Taiwan as a subservient province of the mainland Communist regime.

This is the context in which Mr. Chen’s recent comments must be understood. In the face of these unmistakable distortions of the status quo over the past year — and the growing threat posed by the deployment of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan — Mr. Chen has countered by questioning the viability of an institution that has little relevance to the current debate.

One might expect that at this particularly volatile intersection of diplomatic sensitivities and democratic politics, Mr. Chen could have chosen a different course. Instead, he has kept a lid on similarly destabilizing actions by his government, holding back on early campaign pledges that might exacerbate the situation. Instead of taking the bait from either the Chinese or his domestic critics, Mr. Chen has remained steady. And while others have been willing to pursue unilateral actions that could affect the future course and security of the region, he has been true to perhaps the most admirable pledge - to leave such decisions to Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants.

In the context of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, one could say that Mr. Chen’s actions have been quite diplomatic. And far from a rebuke, our government should both acknowledge this, and — given China’s enduring threat — show the kind of support that our democratic ally deserves. For a country in which people are not allowed to google “sensitive” words such as freedom or democracy, China has never appealed to the hearts and souls of the Taiwanese people. The Taiwanese people should have the final words on their own future. In his State of the Union speech, President Bush said the United States is committed to an historic, long-term goal — we seek the end of tyranny in our world. When Chinese President Hu Jintao comes to Washington in April, we will applaud President Bush for his continued efforts to speak about the democratic values embedded in this country.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, is the chairman of the International Relations Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, is the vice chairman of the International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

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