Int'l Herald Tribune

Why not an independent Taiwan?

Advising China

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

By Jonathan Mirsky

TAIPEI -- After a tumultuous week in Taiwan, climaxing in an assassination attempt on President Chen Shui-bian and his paper-thin re-election victory the next day, one thing is clear: Taiwan is an independent democracy, the first-ever on Chinese soil, and Beijing should be urged to accept the status quo.

For years, China has said that if Taiwan declared independence, Beijing reserved the right to use force. But not only do Chen and those around him freely use the word independent, so did his predecessor, President Lee Teng-hui. Taiwan's last Kuomintang high official, elected president in 1996, Lee made a point of telling me in 1997 that "Taiwan is an independent country"; the response in Beijing was mild irritation, no more.

Yet a few months ago when Chen announced that he intended to add a referendum question on election day, asking Taiwanese in essence if they wanted to be independent, President George W. Bush surprised the international community by describing this as "provocation." At the time, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was visiting Washington, and it was assumed that Bush was trying to please his guest - and indeed the Chinese were loud in their praise.

Chen changed the question to one asking if people approved the purchase of late-model anti-ballistic missiles to counter the almost 500 Chinese missiles now aimed at Taiwan. Beijing dismissed this as nothing but another form of "creeping independence." The Taiwanese did not vote in favor of the question. Chen's opponents may have convinced them that this would cause an attack from the mainland.

Still, something has changed in the atmosphere. American officials and ex-officials who pay close attention to Taiwan usually employ the word "ambiguity" to avoid letting either Taipei or Beijing know how the United States would react if China attacked Taiwan. But now some are speaking in apocalyptic terms. If China attacks Taiwan, they warn, not too discreetly, and the island looks like losing, the United States will join the battle, and, if necessary, as more than one put it recently, "take the war to the mainland."

What is noteworthy about those who make these comments, some of whom were in Taipei last week, is their irritation with President Chen. He seems impervious to warnings, they complain, refusing to moderate his claims of independence. They say, too, that Chen appears convinced that China will not attack Taiwan.

What enrages Chen's American critics is that he may draw the United States into war with China to protect Taiwan. They point to statements by two senior Chinese military men in December who said that Chen was reaching a dangerous line. This is an alarming and possibly dangerous state of affairs. But it requires not restraint from Chen, but statesmanship from the United States and enlightened self-interest from China.

Washington has always hailed Taiwan's steady progress, beginning in the late 1970s, from an autocracy not much different from the mainland's to genuine democracy. If Taiwan is indeed a democracy and an independent one at that, Washington should not tell it how to behave. This is especially so now that Chen has won a second term with just over 50 percent of the vote, compared with under 40 percent four years ago.

The Americans should speak firmly to Beijing. They should remind the Chinese, first of all, that Taiwan is no threat to the mainland - even to its self-image. Fewer than 30 countries recognize Taipei, it should be emphasized, and if this number changes it will be down, not up.

It could be gently suggested to China that while its deep-seated anger about past humiliation, especially in the 19th century, is valid, a foreign policy based on resentment and threat is inappropriate and internationally alarming. The Chinese should be praised, rightfully, for their good relations with their neighbors, their entry into international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and their signatures on international human rights conventions such as on the rights of the child and against torture. They should work to improve human rights, which the latest State Department report states have deteriorated. What is disturbing about the present climate is that some Americans have bought into the most bellicose and self-destructive side of China's presentation of itself to the world.

What is required is recognition in Washington that a democratic Taiwan is a good thing, though far from perfect - official corruption there is endemic - and should be left to become even better. Beijing should be encouraged to accept that Taiwan does not threaten China's genuine self-interest.

Jonathan Mirsky is a former East Asia editor of The Times of London.