Taiwan Is Independent - Just Don't Say So
|Taipei, Friday, May 11, 2001
Ralph A. Cossa International Herald Tribune
Taipei -- President George W. Bush, in an attempt to defuse tensions with Beijing after his recent assertion that the United States would do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself, quickly reaffirmed the "one China" policy.
In comments directed toward Taipei, Mr. Bush said: "I certainly hope Taiwan adheres to the one China policy. And a declaration of independence is not the one-China policy." This caveat is critically important to Beijing, which suspects that independence is the aim of both President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan and of the United States.
Yet China's fears seem unwarranted, at least in the near term. None of the Taiwan officials and scholars I met with last week thought a declaration of independence was a viable option for Taiwan. In fact, Mr. Chen has specifically stated that there would be no declaration of independence as long as Beijing did not attempt forcibly to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.
While a referendum on this issue was on the agenda of the governing Democratic Progressive Party when it was in the opposition, Mr. Chen has dropped the idea as one of many peaceful gestures toward Beijing that are thus far unrecognized and unanswered.
In reality, if a referendum on the issue were held today, it is likely that fewer than 15 percent of Taiwan's population would vote for an immediate declaration of independence. But this is probably double or triple the number who would choose reunification with the mainland, now or at anytime in the foreseeable future.
The overwhelming majority would prefer to maintain the status quo, primarily because they are concerned that an open declaration of independence would create chaos, if not outright war, across the Taiwan Strait. This is a confrontation that no one, including the United States, wants.
The dilemma for Beijing is that, as each year passes, fewer Taiwanese support reunification with China, as the old generation of displaced mainlanders is replaced with a population that sees itself first and foremost as Taiwanese. They are Chinese-Taiwanese in the same sense that I am Italian-American. They may take pride in their ethnic roots but they take even greater pride in their Taiwanese identity and in their country's economic and political accomplishments.
Their primary motivation for not seeking formal independence is their very real fear of the consequences. Beijing understands this, which is why it refuses to relinquish its option to use force and continues periodically to rattle sabers in Taiwan's direction. But the more Beijing sticks to its belligerent stance, the less incentive there is for Taiwanese to seek a closer association with the mainland.
Taiwanese argue that Beijing should treat reunification like a future marriage, one that requires a proper engagement period to establish a new relationship based on mutual trust. For the two sides to reunite, China must first also embrace democracy, which implies a very long engagement.
In the meantime, both sides need to show more flexibility in seeking common ground. Mr. Chen has hinted he is ready to accept some type of "one China, differing definitions" formula. Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen of China has talked of "Taiwan and the mainland being part of one China," although Mr. Qian's one China is still centered in Beijing.
What is needed is a type of "one nation, two states" or "commonwealth" formula, under which Taiwan and the mainland are both seen as part of a greater China. Such an arrangement does not seem likely under the current leadership in Beijing but is not impossible over time.
Until then, the people of Taiwan should take some comfort from realizing that Taiwan is already, de facto, a fully independent state and is likely to remain securely so - as long as it does not declare independence.
The writer is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.