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Evolution in Taiwan

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

China and Taiwan have been feuding for so long that outsiders often lose track of what the dispute is actually about: whether Taiwan is a part of China.

On such a touchy issue, a minor move by either side can ignite a fiery reaction. On Monday, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian announced that he was closing his National Unification Council, which is intended to oversee political steps toward a potential future merging of China and Taiwan. Because the council has not met for years, the change will not affect relations between China and Taiwan in any practical way. Yet the act was highly symbolic, essentially moving Taiwan's policy about its future from "eventual reunification" to "neutral." Beijing responded angrily, calling Chen's move an escalation of secessionist activity.

Taiwan has been politically and militarily separate from China since 1949, when Nationalist forces retreated to the island after losing a civil war to the Communists. The question today is whether Taiwan is a separate part of China or just separate, period. In Beijing and Taipei, it is a deeply emotional topic inextricably tied to China's fragile sense of self. Chinese leaders often compare the potential "loss" of Taiwan to losing an arm or a leg, and they promise to declare war if Taiwan declares itself formally independent.

The United States follows a carefully crafted policy of "strategic ambiguity" in the China-Taiwan feud, stressing the need for a peaceful resolution of all disputes. The diplomatic "one China" policy, followed by every president since Richard Nixon, similarly aims to avoid military confrontation by promising eventual reunification. Yet local democracies have a way of messing up grand plans. As Taiwan becomes more democratic, its people are becoming steadily more vocal that they not Beijing or Washington should have the final say about Taiwan's future. "Taiwan first" and "freedom of choice" have become popular watchwords.

China's leaders see Taiwan as an irresponsible child who needs to be brought into the fold and chastised. Yet over the last 20 years, as China's and Taiwan's economies have boomed and become intertwined, it is Taiwan that has matured politically, while China remains stunted. Having the Taiwanese assume more control of their own destiny is an evolution that should be embraced.