Dancing with the enemy
Independence on hold
13 January 2005
For all the hostility between Taiwan and mainland China, their respective economies are now deeply interdependent, says James Miles. That should help to keep the peace.
"GIVE back our rivers and mountains," says a slogan inside a military base on the tip of Kinmen (also known as Quemoy), a tiny island controlled by Taiwan but shrouded by the same polluted haze that envelops Xiamen, a port city on the communist-controlled Chinese mainland. A soldier on guard says giant loudspeakers inside the base still broadcast music across the 2km (1.2 mile) stretch of water to Xiamen.
The easy-listening fare, selected by Taiwan's "political warfare" troops, is a curious cold-war legacy on this fortress of an island. Taiwan's defence ministry will not say what it is for. But the original purpose of these broadcasts, which began after the inconclusive end of China's civil war in 1949, was to undermine the mainland's faith in communism and help to restore Taiwan's government as that of the whole of China. China had loudspeakers too, but they fell silent in 1991. It is decades since the two sides lobbed artillery shells at each other's broadcasting facilities.
Oddly, China would love it if Taiwan really wanted to regain control of the mainland. But the broadcasting station and the slogans are merely anachronisms. Taiwan's armed forces, led by officers who were either born on the mainland or had fathers who were, have found it hard to keep step with the rapid changes on the island. These days the goal of Taiwan's government is to assert the island's independence from China, ideally -- though it dare not say so -- a permanent one. But the barrack routine of shouting slogans calling for the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland was abolished only last September.
China knows that Taiwan is slipping ever further away. Since 2000, the island has been led by Chen Shui-bian, its first president from outside the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) since the civil war. The main aim of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is to bring about the island's formal independence from China. Its charter calls for a Republic of Taiwan, not a Republic of China, as the island now confusingly calls itself. Mr Chen himself has vowed not to go this far, but China's leaders do not trust him. They have given warning that a declaration of de jure independence (such as by a change of name) would mean war.
Pessimists -- and there are plenty of them in both Beijing and Washington -- argue that in the remaining years of Mr Chen's presidency, which runs to 2008, tension between China and Taiwan could escalate, even to the point of armed conflict. Such a war could drag in the United States, Taiwan's main provider of moral and military support. If America decided to intervene, two nuclear powers would be pitted against each other. Japan, from where America would probably launch any bid to defend Taiwan, could find itself sucked in. The whole region could be plunged into turmoil.
Both China (economically) and Taiwan (politically) are evolving so rapidly that talk of preserving the status quo between them is no longer meaningful. Taiwan's smooth and rapid democratisation has allowed its people to redefine their identity. Increasingly, they no longer think of themselves as Chinese. They are Taiwanese, and mainlanders are foreigners. In China, too, nationalist sentiments are surging as the nation becomes more prosperous and the armed forces far more powerful.
Fear of China helps to keep Taiwan's nationalism in check. In parliamentary elections in December, the KMT and its allies caused a surprise by maintaining their slim majority in the legislature. These parties won support for their less confrontational stance towards China, despite their lack of appeal to many native Taiwanese. But around the region and in America, there are worries that Mr Chen will continue to rile the Chinese, who might one day lose patience and respond with force.
This survey will argue that the chances of conflict are slim. For all the nationalistic exuberance of China, there is no sign of a shift away from the fundamentally pragmatic external policy of the last quarter-century. And Taiwan's leaders, for all their braggadocio, are pragmatists too. Not just China, but America, Japan and other big powers are urging them not to go too far. A renamed or redefined republic recognised by the same handful of insignificant states that now recognise Taiwan would gain nothing and probably lose a lot. President Chen may resent America's restraining hand, but he cannot do without it.
There is another remarkable transformation under way that will put just as powerful a brake on any slide towards war: the rapidly growing economic integration and interdependence of Taiwan (the world's 20th biggest economy), China (number seven) and America (number one). Doomsayers in Taiwan, who a few years ago gave warning of a rapid "hollowing out" of their country's economy as manufacturing migrated to China, have been proved manifestly wrong. China, with Taiwan's abundant help but not to the island's detriment, has become the pre-eminent manufacturing base for many of the world's information-technology (IT) products. Even the initially sceptical Mr Chen is beginning to realise that Taiwan can only gain by working with China to remove the remaining barriers to cross-strait flows of people, goods and capital.
In the next few years there will be plenty of pro-independence rhetoric as the debate gets under way on Taiwan's proposed constitutional revisions that Mr Chen has said will be endorsed in 2006 and enacted two years later. But if he is sensible, the main achievement of his eight years in office will be not that he made Taiwan truly independent (which, in almost every respect, it has been for 55 years), but that he helped his country to gain unprecedented prosperity, shoulder to shoulder with China. To get there, he will need to ride the tide of Taiwanese identity with skill-- and some caution.