London, 21 December 2003
America and China
The Taiwan test
Both could do better in handling a democratic Taiwan
GIVEN their past dust-ups, it may come as something of a relief to see America and China, the two natural rivals of the 21st century, squaring off, not over capitalism versus communism (these days a lost cause in China too), but over bra quotas, television tariffs and currency pegs. Not so long ago, Chinese officials were busing in students to hurl stones at the American embassy in Beijing, and American warships were bobbing near Taiwan to fend off military threats to the island, which China claims as its own.
This week George Bush gave China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, a red-carpet welcome to Washington as one of a new generation of Chinese leaders that America can do business with. Yet without careful handling the Taiwan issue could rapidly return things to crisis-pointand this time Mr Bush could be partly to blame.
Mr Bush came to office worrying about the rise of China as a strategic competitor. Yet since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, China has helped in the war on terrorism and says it will do more to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And Mr Wen this week was expected to get America's warm thanks for its efforts so farunavailing though they could yet turn out to beto coax North Korea back into multilateral talks to end its nuclear dabbling.
All this makes prickly relations more manageable where the two still don't see eye to eye: such as on China's still woeful human-rights record, or America's plans for limited missile defences to protect both itself and eventually its bases and allies in Asia and elsewhere. America and China, getting on better Dec 11th 2003 China's local elections Dec 11th 2003 China, Taiwan, United States President Bush welcomes Mr Wen to the White House. The People's Daily publishes a special report on the visit.
So why has Mr Bush chosen this moment to pick a new fight with China over trade? And why did he make a point this week, with the autocratic Mr Wen beside him in the Oval Office, understandably beaming for the cameras, of wagging his finger at the referendum plans of the democratically elected president of Taiwan?
The short answer is that for Mr Bush next year is election year. On trade he has his political ear tuned, against his administration's better free-trading judgment, to loud criticism from manufacturers and congressmen who are complaining, with little evidence to back them up, that China's trade surplus with America and its artificially pegged currency amount to unfair competition. That allowed the astute Mr Wen, who publicly declined to go for tit-for-tat tariffs, to play to the Asian galleries as the grown-upand the statesman.
On Taiwan, however, Mr Bush risks looking not just unstatesmanlike, but weak. America, China and Taiwan have long officially agreed there is but one China, leaving themselves mostly free to agree to disagree over whether it is one China, two systems, as China would have it, or one nation two states, as many Taiwanese might prefer. America has always insisted that the matter be settled peacefully, and has promised to help Taiwan if it is attacked. But now the old one-China formula is under pressure from political change in Taiwan. And politics at home is complicating America's firm hands-off Taiwan message too.
Democrats versus autocrats
Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, facing an election in March, itches to be a lot freer of China's unwanted embrace. Most Taiwanese do not back his independence dreams, if only for fear of what China might do. But emboldened by support for a democratic Taiwan in Congress, and by Mr Bush's greater readiness to sell weapons to its government and to allow its leaders to visit (albeit without the official fanfare accorded to China's prime minister this week), Mr Chen is hoping to boost his election chances against more China-friendly rivals by holding a referendum at the same time as the presidential poll, calling on China to end its missile build-up opposite Taiwan and drop all threats of force. This irks China, which sees all such referendum plans as barely disguised steps towards an eventual declaration of Taiwan's independence. Mr Bush, for his part, does not want a crisis in an election year, especially when he has his hands already full in Iraq and Afghanistan. So this week he said plainly that he opposed unilateral action by either Taiwan or China to change the status quo. In effect, the message to Mr Chen was, cool it.
In cynically picking a fight with China for his own re-election purposes, Mr Chen could ultimately put American lives at risk. If it is to be called on to stand by Taiwan, America is entitled to warn Mr Chen when it feels he is gambling too far. Yet America, no less than authoritarian China, is going to have to pay greater heed in future to the democratically expressed wishes of the Taiwanese people. And the demand that China drop its claim that the only alternative to peaceful reunification is forceful reunification is anyway supposed to be the basis of American policy too.
Mr Bush chose his Oval Office finger-wagging moment badly: it looked as if he was trying to please China for its diplomatic help elsewhere, rather than uphold the principle that Taiwan's future must be settled peacefully and with its consent. What a pity he did not use his encounter with Mr Wen to deliver a public warning to China too: that efforts to coerce Taiwan into reunification are flatly unacceptable.