Taipei's Semantics Are Provocative but Accurate
Paris, Saturday, July 17, 1999
By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune.
HONG KONG - The sound and fury emanating from Beijing over President Lee Teng-hui's remarks about China consisting of ''two states'' makes the words more significant than they really are. But the provocation was deliberate, and Beijing's reaction illustrates the depth of its distrust of Mr. Lee, who, it fears, is pushing Taiwan's independence under the guise of a ''two Chinas'' policy.
Mr. Lee clearly intended to push the envelope of separate political identity a little further. The difference between these latest words and previous formulations, however, is largely semantic. He has done no more than espouse reality: If one assumes that Taiwan is part of China, China consists of two separate, legitimate and functioning states.
For most of the past 50 years, both entities refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other or to entertain the idea that China could be two states in the same way as Korea is and Germany was. Under Mr. Lee, the state in Taiwan has shifted to a more realistic view while Beijing has stuck with its ideology of indivisibility. China's size and importance have enabled Beijing to impose its version of ''one China'' on most of the rest of the world. But it is no more realistic than for Arab states to not acknowledge the state of Israel simply because they view the process of its creation as illegitimate.
Hitherto, Taipei's view was that there was one China but two equal political entities. Beijing admitted the existence of two entities but acknowledged neither the legitimacy and certainly not the equality of the Taiwan government. Now Taipei is saying that these two entities are ''states'' within one nation.
This nuance is really quite slight but has touched a very raw nerve. The ''two states'' notion has always been offensive to Beijing's assumption of its own sole legitimacy. But having recognized the reality of two Korean states, it is on rather weak ground in denying similar status to a part of a divided China. Indeed, it could be argued that unification would be easier if Beijing acknowledged the reality of two states within China and that, by not doing so, it promotes the concept of independence for Taiwan. Independence is quite different from ''two Chinas'' as a goal. Taiwan as a nation-state would be as separate as Vietnam is from China or Austria from Germany.
Not only is Beijing too mesmerized by its self-importance to recognize two states. It also fears that Mr. Lee's hidden agenda is to use ''two Chinas'' as a stepping stone to Taiwan's independence. Mr. Lee's persona, his identification as a Taiwanese and his close ties with Japan are seen as the embodiment of separatism.
The timing of Mr. Lee's ''two states'' remarks seems to have been designed to entrench his tough line in official policy well before he steps down next year. Whoever succeeds him is unlikely to be as forthright.
Indeed, Beijing has been preparing the ground for what it hopes will be better relations once Mr. Lee has gone. The planned visit in October of Wang Daohan, China's top negotiator with Taiwan, can be seen as designed to entice Taiwan into being more flexible, for example by accepting direct shipping and air links with the mainland without a political quid pro quo.
But Mr. Lee's remarks have pushed Beijing into a milder version of the threatening gestures it made prior to the 1996 presidential election, and that proved so helpful to Mr. Lee's campaign. No presidential aspirant in Taiwan can afford to be seen as unwilling to stand up to Beijing.
Mr. Lee's move is a particular challenge to James Soong, the renegade presidential candidate. Mr. Soong is very popular and is ahead of the governing Kuomintang's official candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, in opinion polls. But as a mainlander who favors cross-straits links, he will now be more vulnerable to accusations of lacking commitment to Taiwan's separate status, however it is defined.
Mr. Lee has been deliberately provocative for reasons of domestic, cross-straits and international politics. But that does not detract from the accuracy of his statement that China currently consists of two legitimate states.