Int'l Herald Tribune

Does Taiwan's leader know when to stop?

Pushing the U.S. too far

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

by Ralph A. Cossa

Singapore--- President George W. Bush got it just about right last week when he publicly criticized Taiwan's leader, President Chen Shui-bian, during the visit to Washington of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China. Bush was not kowtowing to China, he was merely expressing U.S. policy in clear and plain language. But his comments may have been too little, too late.

Bush said, "We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo" - in other words, no use of force by Beijing and no declaration of independence by Taiwan. There was nothing new here; this is long-standing U.S. policy. After allowing this message to be translated, Bush continued, "And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally that change the status quo, which we oppose."

This message was equally clear: As far as relations across the Taiwan Strait are concerned, the Bush administration sees Taiwan, not China, as the one that seems most intent on rocking the boat.

Domestic politics lies behind Chen's controversial initiative for a referendum. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party and its ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, first tried to pass legislation that would authorize referendums as an "expression of democracy" to gain momentum in the legislature, controlled by the rival coalition of the Kuomintang and the People First Party.

But the rival coalition cleverly outmaneuvered Chen by enacting legislation that severely limited the government's ability to call independence-related referendums, thus reducing Beijing's near-term concerns about such actions.

The new law did, however, allow the president to call for a "defensive referendum" on national security issues in the face of an external military threat to Taiwan's sovereignty or national security. Chen, determined not to be outmaneuvered in the legislature, immediately announced that he was invoking the defensive referendum clause because of the "threat" posed by China's missile forces - a clear subversion of the spirit and intent of the new law.

While Chen's move may serve his domestic political agenda, it does not serve Taiwan's national security interests - or America's.

Let's be clear on this point. It was Chen's campaign tactics, not Chinese demands, that prompted Bush's remarks. Bush and Wen would have been perfectly content to make their ritual "one-China" comments and then move on, but Chen's actions, immediately before the Chinese prime minister's visit, forced Taiwan to the top of the political agenda.

Chen also reinforced the growing suspicion that Taiwan leaders see American relations with Beijing and Taipei strictly in zero-sum terms. Bush believes the United States can enjoy close relations with both and has little tolerance for attempts by either Beijing or Taipei to undermine the other relationship. Beijing seems to have grasped this; Taipei apparently has not.

While the primary responsibility for the current controversy rests with Chen, Beijing and Washington are not free of their share of the blame. China continues its diplomatic full press against Taipei, thus raising Chen's frustration level. Beijing's refusal to permit Taiwan's entry into the World Health Organization, even as a "health entity" - a status that would reinforce Beijing's "one China" claim - increases the "separatist" feelings China says it is combating.

More important, Beijing seems to have concluded that if 100 missiles opposite Taiwan is a good thing, 500 must be five times as good. The point of diminishing returns has long since been passed. At some point, Washington will feel compelled to respond by supplying Taiwan with more advanced missile defense systems, which will then prompt Beijing to accuse Washington of emboldening Taiwan. Neither Taipei nor Beijing seems to understand the principle of cause and effect.

Meanwhile, comments by hard-liners in the U.S. administration that Bush is Taiwan's "guardian angel" and that he did not "oppose" independence were enthusiastically interpreted in Taipei as a green light to test relations with China. While Washington remains officially neutral regarding the outcome of Taiwan's presidential elections in March 2004, supporters of Chen's governing Democratic Progressive Party have been citing such remarks as "proof" that Washington not only backs Taiwan democracy - which it does - but that it also supports Chen's re-election bid. Bush's recent comments should help correct this misperception.

It would be unrealistic, however, to expect Chen to abandon completely his drive to hold a referendum. In the referendum as it is currently described, voters will be asked if they oppose the presence of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan or the use of force in resolving the cross-Strait issue. The referendum is pure politics and nothing more - is anyone in favor of being threatened?

Chen now seems to be openly confronting and antagonizing Washington (as well as Beijing), apparently confident that a little bit of anti-Americanism might serve his near-term political interests. That it might harm Taiwan's long-term interests seems to matter little.

When Chen was advised recently that he was pushing Washington too far, he is reported to have replied "once I win, the United States will have little option other than to back me." That, of course, presumes Taiwan's voters will find his current brinkmanship in their national interest.

It also presumes that President Bush will not feel compelled to take even more direct steps to express Washington's displeasure with Taipei's current policies - and that Chen will not lose votes even if Bush goes to the lengths of publicly branding him as a potential "troublemaker."

The writer is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.