The verbal shots across the Taiwan Strait were stark. “Taiwan is our territory,” said Tan Naida, a delegate to the National People’s Congress in Beijing. “Just look at history. Why can’t we take Taiwan back?”
“Taiwan wants independence,” said President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan in Taipei. “Taiwan wants to change its name, Taiwan wants a new constitution, Taiwan
That aspect of the running dispute between China and Taiwan over the island off the coast of China is clear enough. Much of the rivalry, however, is riddled with contradiction. The consequence is an uneasy and perhaps dangerous stalemate about which the Bush administration has done little but wring its hands.
Perhaps the most evident contradiction is the difference between what Beijing says and what it does. The party line includes frequent appeals to “compatriots” in Taiwan to reunite with the mainland. It’s a Communist Party version of: “Come back, Taiwan, all is forgiven.”
Yet many Chinese actions alienate the people of Taiwan. Some is petty harassment. When Mr. Chen flew to Nicaragua in January to attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega, China pressed Mexico not to allow his airplane to fly through Mexican air space on the return trip, forcing the plane to swing out over the Pacific and adding several hours to the flight time.
Chinese officials seem to go out of their way to humiliate the Taiwanese. In international sports events, the Taiwan team is forced to compete under the clumsy name of “Chinese Taipei.” The same is often true in international economic forums.
During a seminar in Honolulu some months ago, the head of a Chinese delegation walked out in a huff when he discovered staff members of Taiwan’s quasi-official consulate were in the audience.
Elsewhere, a senior Chinese official, approached by a TV reporter from Taiwan, sneered on camera: “Who cares about you?” That was televised all over Taiwan.
China’s campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically is well documented. For years, Beijing has blocked Taiwan’s application to join the United Nations and affiliated agencies such as the World Health Organization. That effort is often extended to nongovernmental organizations.
Equally well documented is China’s military modernization aimed primarily at Taiwan, including an estimated 1,000 missiles aimed across the Strait. Chinese leaders last week announced an 18 percent increase in military spending, to $45 billion. Many Western estimates place China’s real military spending at twice that.
China’s hostility clearly affects the attitudes of Taiwanese as seen in polls taken three times a year, the latest in December. About 85 percent opted for maintaining the status quo, meaning moving toward neither independence nor unification with the mainland. Taiwanese seem to take at face value the Chinese threat to launch an attack if Taiwan seeks formal independence.
Among the contradictions on Taiwan’s side were those in the “Four Wants” proclaimed by President Chen last week.
Mr. Chen said earlier that Taiwan would not seek formal independence. He has said Taiwan would not change its formal name, the Republic of China, to the Republic of Taiwan. He has said he would not seek a new constitution that would, in effect, be a declaration of formal independence. Only the desire for more economic development did not contradict earlier statements.
Buttressing President Chen’s “Four Wants” have been new versions of history textbooks used in Taiwan’s high schools that emphasize Taiwan’s separate identity and renaming state-owned enterprises to substitute the word “Taiwan” for “China.” Corporate executives say this is not easy as all sorts of legal and regulatory changes must be made.
Where the history of Taiwan was included in China’s history before, the new series of four textbooks has a volume on Taiwan’s history, another on China’s history, and two on world history. Among the company name changes, the China Post Co. has become the Taiwan Post Co. and the Chinese Petroleum Corp. has become CPC Taiwan.
The Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq and other pressing issues, has tried to persuade both Taiwan and China not to make unilateral changes that would upset the status quo and what the White House and State Department see as stability across the Taiwan Strait.
A State Department spokesman said President Chen’s “Four Wants” were “not helpful” about the same time the department issued a congressionally mandated report on human rights, which China was accused of allowing to deteriorate.
The open question is how long Taiwan or China will refrain from drastic measures to resolve the dispute.
Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.