London, 08 August 2002
Taiwan's flexibility has not been rewarded by China
AS THE great American baseballer Yogi Berra once said: It's déjà vu all over again. Not for the first time, a Taiwanese leader has made comments that appear to pull the island closer to a declaration of independence from China, drawing a belligerent response from the old men in Beijing who have vowed to attack the island rather than let it go its own way.
In the most provocative remarks in his two years as Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian on August 3rd described the current situation as one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is not a part of another country, not a local government or province of another country, Mr Chen said. Speaking via a satellite video link to a meeting in Japan of groups favouring Taiwan's independence, Mr Chen also suggested that he might favour holding a referendum in Taiwan to change the island's sovereign status.
China's reaction was no less alarming for being predictable. Mr Chen's heresy, Beijing said two days later, threatened to harm Taiwan's economy, hurt the personal interests of Taiwan compatriots and lead Taiwan to disaster.
By August 7th, senior Chinese military officials had chimed in. One unnamed officer gave warning in the mainland's official press (with dubious logic) of rising odds that peace will have to be safeguarded and won through the use of force. A senior military analyst promised that China's army is ready to deal a heavy blow to the separatist forces and foreign forces that attempt to intervene in China's reunification with Taiwan.
Similar sniping took place three years ago when Taiwan's then president, Lee Teng-hui, used the phrase special state-to-state relations to describe relations across the strait. Almost immediately, Mr Lee's party began to back-pedal. Now Mr Chen has done much the same.
Three days after his speech, Mr Chen allowed (through a spokesman of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, which he leads) that his comments were oversimplified and may have caused misunderstanding. Taiwan also announced that it would cancel anti-submarine exercises that had been scheduled to begin on August 15th, for fear they would be misinterpreted.
Wherever they lead, Mr Chen's remarks were probably meant to counter the widespread perception in Taiwan that the goodwill gestures he made on taking officepromises that Taiwan would not declare independence, not have a referendum on the issue and not formalise Mr Lee's hated state-to-state model of cross-strait relationshave been in vain. Certainly there is a sense among Mr Chen's closest supporters that Taiwan has shown weakness, and that the ever-greater inter-linking of the two economies, which Taiwan has promoted, benefits China without it paying any diplomatic price. With an election only 18 months away, Mr Chen may have felt the need to restore his credibility by getting tough. No doubt he remembers that in 1996 Mr Lee did splendidly in an election campaign based almost exclusively on defiance of China.
Mr Chen made his move at a time when the mainland's own politics have reached a uniquely tricky pass. What had long appeared to be an orderly succession in which China's President Jiang Zemin would give way to Vice-President Hu Jintao is now bogged down in uncertainty. The Communist Party's congress, which is held every five years, was meant to take place in September or October, but no date has yet been officially announced. Mr Jiang meanwhile is waging a vigorous campaign that seems designed to find a way in which he might remain at the helm.
All this has led to a fair amount of grumbling, by both those in Mr Hu's camp who expected to be moving up, and those who feel that an orderly transfer of power would mark an important step forward for China's political system. Mr Jiang can thus ill afford to look weak in his response to Taiwan's latest challenge. China's army is consistently hardline when it comes to Taiwan, and Mr Jiang needs its backing if he is to hang on to power. Although the military men are unlikely to advocate direct armed action, they will frown mightily upon any failure by the mainland to show backbone, and may well rattle a sabre or two.
Yet Mr Jiang also has to bear in mind that the Bush administration has vowed to help Taiwan defend itself. Good ties with America are another priority for Mr Jiang, who likes to portray his ability to manage that relationship as one of his chief qualifications for the top job. He is scheduled to visit President Bush in Texas in the autumn. His reputation as an international statesman would surely suffer if a cross-strait drama interfered with those plans.