The Truth about Taiwan
London, 24 July 1999
If China wants reunion with Taiwan, it should look more worth reuniting with.
IT SEEMS more like an abstruse semantic debate than a threat to world peace. But, if some Chinese leaders are to be believed, the latest language used by Lee Teng-hui, Taiwans president, to describe the islands relationship with the mainland could lead to a war. The threat of force has become almost a kneejerk reaction for Chinas leaders whenever Taiwan displeases them. They need to realise that this hinders rather than helps Chinas goal of reunification. Not only does it antagonise Taiwans people; it also helps to build up other countries support for Taiwans right to decide its own future.
All Mr Lee said was that Taiwan sees its relations with China as a special state-to-state relationship rather than an internal one. Since it is self-evident that the Taiwan of 1999 is not part of China, this seems uncontentiousno more, as Taiwans officials soothingly point out, than a clarification of the status quo. The trouble is that the status quo relies on lack of clarity, and on ambiguity about Taiwans place in the world. Certainly, China found the elaboration provocative. One of its generals, as happy to mix metaphors as to lob missiles, said that Mr Lee, playing with fire, might drown himself in the boundless ocean of the peoples war.
China insists that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese sovereign territory. So it is riled when official statements seem to rule out reunification. Yet Taiwans recent history has seen the steady build-up of what in practice looks like the behaviour of an independent state. Taiwan has shed its archaic constitutional links with China; it has given the mainland a helping hand by allowing Taiwanese businessmen to become huge investors there; above all, the island, unlike the mainland, has started to embrace democracy.
First question: what do the Taiwanese want?
Taiwans swift transition from being one of Asias most rigid dictatorships to being one of its liveliest new democracies was bound to fray its vestigial ties with China. Only a small minority in Taiwan now favours reunification. Most of its people want a continuation of the separate status that has brought them prosperity and a measure of freedom.
No doubt Mr Lees provocative words have much to do with domestic politics. A presidential election is to be held next spring. The man Mr Lee has chosen as his successor is not very popular, and the ruling partys vote may be split by a challenge from one of its leading figures who is standing as an independent. A confrontation with Beijing may expose the challenger, James Soong, to criticism for being too soft on China. It will certainly pull in votes from pro-independence Taiwanese who would otherwise support the opposition.
All of this puts the Westand especially the United Statesin a difficult position. There is widespread sympathy for Taiwans awkward position in the world. On the other hand, every big country has diplomatic relations with China, and has implicitly or explicitly accepted Chinas argument that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. Is it not undiplomatic of Mr Lee to roil the waters, especially if it is for domestic political purposes?
Of course it is. The Americans this week wearily sent officials to try to cool tempers in both Beijing and Taipei. But it is hypocritical for the West to applaud Taiwans democratic transformation while complaining about an inevitable consequence of that transformationthat the islands status has become a central issue of its politics. The current squabble also highlights another ambiguity in American foreign policy. The United States is both a subscriber to Chinas formula about one China and yet also, through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, committed to the defence of Taiwan.
The best hope of ensuring that these contradictions are never put to the test is that China itself will change. Maybe one day Taiwans people will willingly join a democratic, tolerant China. Or maybe a more liberal China will one day be less hostile to Taiwans independence. Today both ideas look like pipe-dreams. It is as likely that a future regime in Chinacommunist or otherwisewill be even more insecurely sensitive on issues of national sovereignty, even more aggressive in its attitude towards Taiwan. The generous reunification terms currently on offer date from 1981. Then, after the horrors of the cultural revolution, China had a government which enjoyed popular support. It could offer concessions (the one-country, two-systems formula later offered to Hong Kong) beyond the scope of a weaker regime. They may not last.
Playing for time still makes sense for Taiwan. But that does not mean keeping quiet about its anomalous international position. The Chinese anger that Mr Lee has provoked is worrying. But it does at least serve as a reminder that China has never renounced the threat of an invasion. This, most of the world now agrees, is unacceptable. That is the message which now has to be delivered to the government in Beijing.
However the present row resolves itself, the future of Taiwan will soon move up the worlds agenda. When Portugal hands Macau back to China in December, Taiwan will be the last item left on Chinas list of places it wants to reclaim. Once, it was possible for China to tell itself that in Taiwan, as in Hong Kong and Macau, the ruling elite might negotiate a transfer of sovereignty. No longer. To draw Taiwan into reunion, China will need to win the support of Taiwans people. Its current behaviour is a demonstration of how not to do it.