Agence France Press

US seeks government dialogue to end Taiwan conflict

Friday May 06, 2005

WASHINGTON, (AFP) - Resumption of high-level political ties between Taiwan and China has eased US security concerns but President George W. Bush is pushing for government-to-government contacts between the arch-rivals for any permanent resolution to their conflict.

Only two months ago, China adopted a law allowing it to use force against any secession moves by Taiwan, triggering concerns in Washington, raising tensions in the region and apparently forcing the European Union to defer a decision to lift an arms embargo on Beijing.

But visits to the mainland this month by two key Taiwanese opposition figures, who were also given the rare privilege of holding talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, is helping to thaw relations.

Seizing the opportunity, Bush has called for an expansion of the dialogue, calling on Hu in a telephone call this week to "reach out" more formally to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, "the duly elected" leader.

Bush was effectively "telling China that the Taiwanese government is a legitimate democratic government and China has to recognize that," said John Tkacik, a China expert in the Heritage Foundation.

"To me, we have a core national interest in ensuring the survival of democracy among our allies, including Taiwan," Tkacik said, citing Bush's unrelenting policy to "spread freedom across the world."

Taiwan, he said, was the second largest US defence customer in the Pacific after Japan, and a "very important" intelligence partner in Asia, providing at least half of American raw intelligence on China's expanding military.

"So it seems to me that there is a core national interest in keeping Taiwan out of the hands of China," Tkacik said.

The visits to China by Lien Chan, leader of Taiwan's main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, and another opposition figure James Soong were "a positive first step" although they were not from the government, said Alan Romberg, another China-Taiwan expert.

"Much as the government in Taipei is obviously frustrated that these visits by opposition leaders could complicate their policy management, that is one of the prices that one pays for having a democracy," said Romberg, director of the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

He said that the larger question was whether Beijing and Taipei could find a way to advance or resume their dialogue.

China has ruled out official talks with Taiwan unless Chen first abandons his pro-independence stance and accepts the so-called one-China policy, while president Chen has indicated he is willing to talk under the principles of peace, democracy and equality.

China considers Taiwan a part of its territory that must be brought back under its rule even though the island has been ruled as a de facto independent state since 1949, when it was occupied by the Kuomintang, the losing side of the Chinese civil war.

The main problem stems from the fact that during the 1950s and 1960s the Kuomintag continued to claim sovereignty over China, which was increasingly untenable, leading to derecognition in the 1970s.

Since the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, Washington acknowledges Beijing's position that Chinese on both sides consider Taiwan a part of China. However, this position has not taken the views of the majority of Taiwanese on the island into consideration.

The United States remains the leading arms supplier to Taiwan because it is bound by law to offer the island the means of self-defence if its security was threatened.

Robert Hathaway, the Asian program director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the visits by the Taiwanese opposition leaders had helped eased tensions stemming from Beijing's adoption of the anti-secession law.

"The interesting question now is whether or not Chen Shui-bian will feel pressured to back off from some of his earlier positions so that he too can visit the mainland, or whether or not he will simply feel that he cannot afford to back off because Beijing has insisted on his acceptance of the idea of one China prior to any sort of discussions and he has refused to do that," Hathaway said.