{short description of image}

China squeezes Bush on Taiwan

Thursday, January 13, 2005

by Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist

LOS ANGELES -- The U.S./China/Taiwan relationship may be theweirdest in the world.

Here's why ... The Bush administration is getting maneuvered into a kind of China box, and there may be no easy exit.

Perhaps the risk of this emerging dynamic is less obvious these days as the humanitarian efforts of the United States, its friends and allies in the tsunami recovery in Asia understandably occupy media center stage. But underneath the surface are newly churning waters of the U.S./China/Taiwan triangular relationship that could prove of tsunami-strength in destructiveness.

From the mainland comes new evidence of determination to keep the off-shore island of Taiwan from getting away from the mainland any further. For China's current leaders regard the integration of the island as the highest non-economic policy priority.

Back in December, the National People's Congress in Beijing, reflecting, of course, party and government views, declaimed that it would be necessary to mint a new anti-secession law to lay down an unmistakable line in the sand for obstreperous, offshore Taiwan.

And so last week, Chen Yunlin, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, conferred with a top U.S. State Department official in Washington about the nature and intent of the anti-secession law. This unusual high-level meeting -- aimed at securing at least Bush administration neutrality if not support for the legislation -- came at about the same time as Beijing was sending another slap Taiwan's way: The mayor of Taipei was denied a visa to visit Hong Kong.

This was curious. Mayor Ma Ying-jeou is a veteran politician and member of the Kuomintang Party, which does not favor formal Taiwan independence. Perhaps the best interpretation is simply to imagine Beijing in deadly fear that a high-level visit by the charismatic Ma to Hong Kong might trigger widespread discussion of the ever-hotter Taiwan situation. Who really knows? -- though, surely, the ordinarily affable Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa does. Weeks before Ma's visa was denied, Tung's team slipped Mayor Ma word that quiet cancellation of the trip would be best.

And so there is evident tightening of the pressure around Taiwan. And the timing is not coincidental. The Bush administration needs to figure out some way to get out of the Iraq quagmire without losing face; to get that, it manifestly needs to avoid major military conflict elsewhere. This is where Beijing's sense of timing comes in.

For the foreseeable future, the United States requires a decent relationship with China as much as China does with the U.S. This is especially the case with the dicey North Korean problem, where Beijing has taken the lead in organizing the six-party talks apparatus that involves, besides Washington, of course, Tokyo, Seoul, Moscow and Pyongyang.

They are not going well, but the framework remains intact -- and may even survive the North Korean issue, however resolved. It would indeed be a feather in the cap of the Hu Jintao government if it could get North Korea to agree to denuclearize and the U.S. to accept the continued existence of the current Pyong-yang regime.

From the Asian perspective, though, the key sticking point has been the Bush administration's reluctance to cross that Rubicon.

In an establishment foreign-policy luncheon the other day in Washington, former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft (under Ford and Bush Sr.) said it would be all but a disaster if the six-party talks did break down; but it would be an unmitigated, undeniable disaster for the Sino-U.S. relationship if it were Washington that was seen to be the deal-breaker. The U.S. must not be held to blame, said Scowcroft: "If there's a breakdown, China must stay on our side!" And he meant more or less across Asia in general.

The remarks of Scowcroft bear on the Taiwan issue. Stress on the Sino-American relationship is now the last thing President Bush needs. And so when China asks the U.S. president to look the other way on the Taiwan question, what is a besieged president supposed to do?

But the prospect of a conservative Republican president going "wobbly" on Taiwan would not play well at all in the GOP trenches in Congress. And it would scarcely square with the administration's global policy of democracy expansion, which presumably was a key reason for the Iraq operation. Taiwan, after all, is a democracy; China is not.

But -- again -- if Bush were shoved on Taiwan, what would he do? It may not be too long before the world finds out.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network.