Int'l Herald Tribune

Beijing Looks for a Taiwan Policy

Paris, Thursday, August 17, 2000

By Ralph A. Cossa

TOKYO - As China's leaders discuss policies at the summer resort of Beidaihe, strategy toward Taiwan is high on their agenda. President Jiang Zemin has been criticized openly for mishandling events leading to Chen Shui-bian's election as Taiwan's president.

Some critics, particularly within the military, think that Mr. Jiang was too soft, but most feel that he painted himself and China into a corner, with the result that it is now hard to deal constructively with Mr. Chen, who has turned out to be surprisingly conciliatory.

Mr. Chen has made a series of unilateral concessions to Beijing. He has said that there will be no statement of independence, no referendum on Taiwan's desired status, no institutionalization of former President Lee Teng-hui's controversial ''special state-to-state relations'' stance, no change to Taiwan's constitution or name, no termination of the National Unification Council and no scrapping of the National Unification Guidelines.

These are significant departures from positions held previously by Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. He has even flirted with ''one-China'' formulations, expressing a willingness ''to embrace the spirit of 1992,'' when Beijing and Taipei agreed to disagree over definition.

This is about as far as Mr. Chen, with his own domestic political constraints, can realistically go.

It is highly unlikely, given the attacks against him from members of his party for being too soft on China, that he will say what Beijing unrealistically demands to hear on one China. Nor should he, at least not until Beijing shows some recognition and appreciation for how much he has already conceded.

Meanwhile, he has embarked on a charm offensive aimed at strengthening his support in the United States, Japan and elsewhere, without unnecessarily irritating Beijing. Significantly, his stopover in Los Angeles on Sunday, while en route to visit Central America, was carried out in a low-key way.

Mr. Chen has also opted for a more pragmatic approach to international diplomacy, one that focuses on maintaining Taipei's current diplomatic ties rather than on trying to buy new friends with generous offers of economic assistance.

Chinese leaders have to come up with a more effective way of dealing with Mr. Chen's smile offensive. One recent tack that already shows signs of backfiring is to mix politics and economics, despite Beijing's constant admonitions to Washington and others not to do so in dealing with China. Beijing is insisting that Taiwan entrepreneurs wanting to do business on the mainland support the one-China doctrine and disavow independence for Taiwan.

Beijing objected when then President Lee tried to moderate large-scale Taiwanese investment in China, but now Beijing is threatening to kill its own golden goose.

Taiwan appears to be refining its approach to participation in multilateral organizations. Under Mr. Chen, it is backing away somewhat from the previous administration's aggressive but futile attempts to gain entry into various United Nations gatherings. The Foreign Ministry has announced that greater priority will be placed on achieving increased participation in nongovernmental organizations.

How will Beijing react? It could encourage or at least not attempt to hinder greater Taiwan participation in nongovernmental organizations, as a way of rewarding Mr. Chen for his many concessions. Or it might choose to put more roadblocks along this path, thus helping to convince Taipei that its nonconfrontational approach can yield few dividends.

If Beijing takes a hard-line approach, it could eventually force Mr. Chen to take steps to remind China and the rest of the international community that Taiwan cannot be ignored or completely isolated.

The writer is executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based nonprofit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.