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Taiwan makes friends while Beijing bullies

Canberra, Thursday, July 29, 1999


TAIWAN'S President Lee Teng-hui has again become a target of an extraordinary barrage of vilification from Beijing. According to the ruling communists in Beijing, this arch "splittist" has now revealed that his goal in life is to divide the motherland after his outrageous claim earlier this month that Taiwan was a separate State.

If Lee is reading mainland propaganda, he will be alarmed to learn that his reward for stating what is blatantly obvious about Taiwan's status is to be "spat on by all Chinese".

Unfortunately for Lee and the cause of realism and sanity in international relations, there is more than just Chinese spittle flying around. Sycophantic sinologists in Western foreign ministries will also be cursing this "criminal of the nation" who persists in puncturing their delusions and challenging the "expert" advice they serve up to their political masters.

Even elements in traditionally liberal media have fallen for the absurd proposition that because China darkly threatens war, it is Lee who is at fault for stating the truth.

The New York Times and the South China Morning Post have said that Lee is courting danger. Admittedly, The New York Times warned Beijing to avoid military threats but advised Lee to "abandon talk of separate States and instead reaffirm Taiwan's desire for eventual peaceful reunification on terms consistent with its current freedoms".

The message is clear. When a big, tough-talking nation threatens violence if reality is acknowledged, everyone else, even the United States, should fall into line. It is extremely difficult to see how this can be a useful formula for regional security or the future of the Chinese people on the mainland or Taiwan.

In some respects, the problem is not Taiwan's status as Beijing insists, but the status of China. As a price for diplomatic ties with Beijing, most nations agreed to pretend Taiwan didn't exist. Perhaps, as some commentators have written, in the hope that the island would simply go away.

It didn't. Taiwan became prosperous and then one of Asia's most liberal and free societies and it is by no means certain that peaceful reunification will occur. In fact it is more likely that it will not, as a unique Taiwanese identity develops.

In some respects it is not surprising that pretence is at the heart of this problem because in so many other perspectives on China, reality denial is the order of the day.

Despite clear evidence to the contrary, it is widely assumed that China is a great power when it is an extremely poor, weak nation with huge question marks over its short-term future and stability.

Likewise, many foreign businesses are under the impression that the Chinese market promises to be a commercial El Dorado, an illusion that persists no matter how many expensive investments are written off.

In the real world, Taiwan is steadily opening the gap between itself and the mainland. This was clearly demonstrated in the recent Balkans conflict.

Just inside the entrance of the Stenkovic refugee camp in Macedonia, the Kuomintang flag flew over the Taiwanese field hospital for Kosovo Albanian refugees.

There alongside the tents, kitchens and makeshift offices of the other international aid agencies, Taiwanese doctors and nurses treated traumatised victims of Serbian ethnic cleansing across the nearby Kosovo border.

As hospital staff laboured, Taiwan was in the process of approving a $US300 million ($462 million) payment to assist in the reconstruction of Kosovo. Meanwhile, the ruling communists in Beijing were whipping up anti-US, anti-NATO pro-Serbian propaganda in the official state-run media without a shred of sympathy for the plight of Yugoslavia's brutalised Kosovars.

When NATO foolishly and erroneously bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Beijing spurned the apologies and incited a mob attack on the US Embassy and those of other NATO countries. Clearly, the Balkans conflict was a complex tragedy with few clear divisions but, as usual, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out who took the points in the international public relations contest between Taiwan and China.

Of course, the "good guys" won. The small, prosperous, democratic and unthreatening island of Taiwan was trying to help. The authoritarian mainland authorities were doing everything in their power to frustrate efforts to help Kosovo's Albanians.

As long as this distinction remains, Taiwan will continue to boost its international standing and make it even more difficult to sustain the pretence that it falls under Beijing's domain.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Lee Teng-hui will sound more and more plausible.