Int'l Herald Tribune

Taiwan: The ball is in Beijing's court

Friday, May 28, 2004

By Ralph A. Cossa

TAIPEI -- Before the inauguration last week of Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, Beijing warned him to abandon his "dangerous lurch toward independence" and follow a more cooperative path. The message seems to have been received: Chen's inauguration address was filled with olive branches.

Chen even expressed understanding as to why China cannot relinquish its insistence on the "one China" principle, while leaving himself open to some new formulation of this policy. "We would not exclude any possibility," Chen promised, "so long as there is consent of the 23 million people of Taiwan."

Chen addressed all of Beijing's - and Washington's - major concerns. But China's response was to accuse Chen of "insincerity" while demanding that Taiwan accept "one China" as the only way forward. This approach, which has not worked for the past four years, is likely to fail again. It's time Beijing took a more imaginative, flexible, proactive approach aimed at winning hearts and minds in Taiwan.

The first thing Beijing should do is drop its "one country, two systems" mantra. This has always been unacceptable to the people of Taiwan, regardless of their political persuasions; China's recent heavy-handed steps to roll back its pledge of greater democracy in Hong Kong make it even more so.

Instead, Beijing should offer a "one nation, two states; one country, two governments" formula that would put meaning behind its offer of an "equal-footed" approach. Taiwan's leadership would be hard-pressed to reject such an approach, even if some elements within the governing coalition objected.

Second, China should look for ways consistent with its own "one China" policy to give Taiwan more international breathing space - a longstanding, bipartisan Taiwanese goal. Participation in the World Health Organization would be one example. China recently blocked observer status for Taiwan in WHO's World Health Assembly. This position needs to be reversed. To demonstrate its concern and genuine feelings for the people of Taiwan, Beijing should support Taiwan's participation in the WHO as a "health entity," a formulation that would extend WHO benefits to Taiwan's people while addressing China's sovereignty concerns. Chen could hardly object to this formulation, as he originally suggested it.

Third, Beijing should freeze and then gradually reduce its missile forces opposite Taiwan. More than 90 percent of those responding to Chen's recent "defensive referendum" saw a need to increase Taiwan's defenses in response to the growing missile threat from China. Should Chen invoke this mandate, it would be difficult for the Bush administration, in an election year, to ignore a request from Taiwan for better missile defenses.

When the United States decided not to sell the Aegis shipborne missile defense system to Taiwan in 2001, it indicated that it would re-evaluate this decision based on the nature of the threat. Beijing should ask itself whether its objectives are better served by 400 missiles opposite Taiwan - today it is estimated to have almost 500 - under current conditions or by 600 missiles confronting an Aegis-equipped Taiwan.

Missile reduction is more than a good-will gesture; it makes strategic sense, if Beijing wants to stop Taiwan marching toward enhanced missile defense - or even offensive missile - capabilities.

Finally, China needs to demonstrate greater flexibility in nongovernment forums. In recent years, China has become increasingly inflexible and heavy-handed in this regard, refusing to participate in or walking out of academic meetings in which scholars from Taiwan had been invited to participate.

Most research organizations in East Asia have experienced such Chinese bullying. Beijing has even tried to block academic exchanges between Taiwan institutes and their counterparts in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. This needs to stop, not only to set a more positive tone for cross-Strait relations, but because such actions undermine China's efforts to prove that it is a responsible neighbor.

President Chen has taken the first step. Some pro-active diplomatic gestures by Beijing could now play a major role in setting the tone for future cross-Strait cooperation - if Beijing has the political courage and foresight to wave olive branches rather than sabers toward Taiwan.

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