Beijing, Not Taipei, Promoting Taiwan Independence
Chicago Tribune, June 1, 2004
Last month, the official New China News Agency warned Taiwan to pull back from a "dangerous lurch toward independence, " otherwise the island would face "destruction." Chinese officials charge that Taiwan's leadership is seeking to transform Taiwan into an independent nation. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that it is Beijing that is really pushing Taiwan's de jure separation from China.
In his 2004 inaugural speech, Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's president, noted that the Taiwanese public has not reached a consensus on whether the island should move toward permanent separation from China or seek eventual unification. This was an astute observation. Public opinion polls in Taiwan reveal that support for independence or unification is largely conditional. In other words, the public's position toward this thorny issue can be influenced by other actors and events. If China undertakes political and economic reforms and adopts a conciliatory attitude toward Taiwan, support for unification will rise. But if China continues to engage in hostile and antagonistic behavior, it will succeed only in provoking the Taiwanese and help stir up passions that could lead to a potentially disastrous confrontation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Unfortunately, China continues to make the mistake of embracing the latter approach.
One does not have to look far to find evidence of China's hostility toward Taiwan. For more than five decades, Beijing has adopted the absurd position that the government in Taipei does not exist and has done everything possible to strip Taiwan of any vestiges of statehood. For example, China insists that foreign nations cannot recognize both the Beijing and Taipei governments--they must choose between them. In an effort to lure Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic allies into its camp, China engages in "dollar diplomacy." In March, the tiny Caribbean nation of Dominica severed relations with Taiwan after reportedly accepting an offer of $117 million in "assistance" from Beijing. At the time, Taiwan's foreign minister observed that Beijing's actions will "only make the cross-strait relations worse, not better."
In addition to stealing Taiwan's allies, Beijing aggressively seeks to block the island's participation in most international organizations. The Taiwanese realize that only Beijing stands in the way of Taiwan's membership in the UN, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and a host of other global institutions. They also realize that it was China's intransigence that prevented the island from receiving much-needed international emergency medical assistance during the 1999 earthquake and the 2003 SARS crisis--conduct that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of Taiwanese. Not surprisingly, public opinion polls show that roughly half of the island's population believes that China is unfriendly toward the Taiwanese, while a solid majority agree that China is unfriendly toward their government.
The hundreds of missiles that Beijing has deployed directly opposite Taiwan and its refusal to renounce the use of force to take the island reinforce the view that China is an unfriendly and threatening power. In order to counter Beijing's military buildup and its increasingly intimidating posture, Taiwan's taxpayers must spend billions on defense instead of using the money to bolster education, health care or other social services. After all, everyone knows no other country threatens Taiwan.
The Chinese are fond of the fact that they seem to have an appropriate saying for almost every occasion. Unfortunately, some appear to be unfamiliar with the adage that "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar." If Beijing is serious about reducing cross-strait tensions and promoting harmony, it must abandon its bellicose threats and sneaky schemes designed to isolate Taiwan from the international community. Beijing would also be well advised to show some flexibility toward the meaning of "one China" and resume cross-strait negotiations without preconditions. As Chen has observed, the two sides could discuss anything if only Beijing will agree to do so.
Finally, China should put its own house in order. As it stands, the authoritarian and increasingly corrupt regime in Beijing holds little appeal for the Taiwanese populace.
Dennis V. Hickey is a professor of political science at Southwest Missouri State University. He is the author of several books on Taiwan and China.