In a statement on 9 December 2003 during the visit of China's premier Wen Jiabao to Washington _ Mr. Bush leaned heavily on president Chen when he said: "We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."
To many observers, this was a change in US policy. Of course there were the usual statements by "senior officials" to the contrary. Still, the statement was interpreted _ not in the least by visiting Mr. Wen Jibao himself as "opposing Taiwan independence," an assertion not contradicted on the spot by Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush's "opposition to unilateral change of the status quo" was of course also aimed at China, telling it not to take any military action against Taiwan. However, he only made those comments behind closed-doors, not in the public session following the meeting. If Mr. Bush had been even-handed, he would have told Mr. Wen publicly that China should dismantle its missiles aimed at Taiwan.
It needs to be emphasized that from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s it has been US policy to emphasize a peaceful resolution of the conflict between China and Taiwan. During those 25-some years the US officially took no position on Taiwan's future status, neither opposing nor supporting independence or unification. The Reagan and Bush Administrations maintained a studious neutrality on the eventual outcome, but stressed that it needed to be a peaceful process.
Of course, recent disclosures in the US National Security Archive point to the fact that Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger in their 1972 closed-door meetings with Chou En-lai stated that they didn't support Taiwan independence. These statements were however never publicly discussed, or agreed to by Congress, and can therefore hardly qualify as "policy." (see Report from Washington, on page 22).
In the mid-1990s, there was increasing Chinese pressure on the Clinton Administration to modify its position regarding Taiwan, eventually culminating in the infamous "three noes" of Mr. Clinton's 1998 visit to China: no US support for "One Taiwan, One China", for an independent Taiwan, and for Taiwan membership in the UN. In the uproar following Mr. Clinton's statement, the US Administration came up with a modified formula, stressing that the future of the island must be determined peacefully, " and with the assent of the people of Taiwan."
The early part of the Bush Administration were marked by two significant statements: one by Mr. Bush in April 2001, that he would do "whatever it takes" to help defend Taiwan, and a subsequent series of statements by high Administration officials emphasizing that US "no support" of Taiwan independence did not mean that it "opposes" independence. Mr. Bush recent statement has now upset this delicate apple cart yet again.
Taiwan Communiqué comment: Instead of kowtowing to Beijing, the US should have an evenhanded policy which upholds the basic principles of democracy and human rights. It is indeed time for clarity instead of ambiguity, but Mr. Bush's remarks on December 9th was more reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain telling the Czechs and Poles to remain quiet in the face of the upcoming Nazi German onslaught than those of a president willing to stand up for democracy around the world.
It is interesting to note that China has always emphasized that Taiwan is an "internal affair". However, now China itself is internationalizing the matter by putting pressure on Taiwan through the US, Europe, and Japan. And sadly, Mr. Bush is allowing himself to be used by China in this way.
There is still time to remedy the situation: Mr. Bush and his Administration should make it crystal clear to Beijing to back-off, dismantle the missiles aimed at Taiwan, and -- if it truly believes in a peaceful resolution -- to enter into talks with the democratically-elected government of Taiwan to come to a negotiated settlement.
The whole episode also raises the question: what is really the status quo? The answer is perhaps similar to the story of the glass half full vs. half empty.
Looking at it from a rosy positive side, one could say that the status quo means the present situation in which _ although the large majority of the international community has only informal ties with Taiwan and recognizes Beijing as the government of China _ the island lives in prosperity, and there is an absence of military hostilities.
In the view of many in the West, this situation should not be disturbed, lest it provokes China into action. Analysts who -- rather naively -- adhere to this view hope that somehow time will bring a magical solution, resolving the problem.
From the Taiwanese side, however, the matter generally looks quite different: to them, the status quo is a dead-end street, into which they have been maneuvered by the former Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang regime and by Communist China. They feel that _ due to China's bullying they are now being prevented from playing a full and equal role as a recognized nation in the international community. They don't understand why the international community seems to side with a repressive Communist regime in Beijing at the expense of the newly-blossoming democracy in Taiwan.
Taiwan Communiqué comment: Many Taiwanese who worked so hard for democracy and human rights in Taiwan during the past decades perceive the stand-offish approach from so many Western governments as a betrayal of the basic principles of human rights and democracy. They feel that Taiwan can only break out of the isolation of the present status quo if the international community _ including China come to the realization that the present democratic Taiwan is not the same as the authoritarian "Republic of China" of 30 years ago, and recognize the democratically-elected government of the island.
President Chen has emphasized time and again to China that he wants the two countries to live in peace and prosperity next to each other. However, the Chinese Communists _ still stuck in the mentality of the Civil War against the Nationalists _ are not willing to accept Taiwan as a friendly neighbor, and refuse to work towards normalization of relations between the two countries. What is the status quo we really want: the present continued hostility or normalized relations and peaceful coexistence as two friendly neighbors?
Below you find an additional authoritative view on the issue, by Professor Lin Tsung-kuang, professor of history at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
By Professor Lin Tsung-kuang. This article first appeared in the Taipei Times on 22 December 2003.
China has 496 missiles pointed at Taiwan. It has threatened an "abyss of war" if Taiwan refuses to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty. China's top military leaders have stated in no uncertain terms that force will be used if Taiwan declares independence even if doing so could mean the cancellation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, cause a slowdown in China's economic development and lead to the deaths of many people.
Less publicized, but widely acknowledged by experts, is the information warfare that Beijing is waging against Taiwan.
China is known to have placed thousands of spies in all sectors of Taiwanese society. In its attempts to disrupt Taiwan's communication and transportation networks, to instill fear and to induce an economic breakdown, China has resorted to such measures as hacking computers, spreading rumors and dispensing erroneous economic information.
It has gone so far as to provide financial or moral support to politicians and political parties that are deemed acceptable to Beijing.
Surely, these are not initiatives designed to preserve the status quo and yet, in the recent summit between US President George W. Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the US leader publicly rebuked the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration for trying to upset the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan is famous for its "economic miracle." More remarkable has been its rapid transition toward full democracy in the past two dozen years.
Beijing has been doing everything in its power to thwart the development of democracy in Taiwan. It sided squarely with the Chiang regime at a time when the democracy movement in Taiwan was in full swing.
In 1996, when Taiwan was taking an unprecedented step toward full democracy by allowing its president to be popularly elected, China reacted by hurling missiles toward the island, which created an international diplomatic crisis. In the 2000 presidential election, Beijing openly warned the Taiwanese electorate that a victory for the DPP's Chen Shui-bian could cause a Chinese invasion, and it went on to provide aid to other candidates, most of them remnants of the old Chiang regime.
Recently the legislature, on the initiative of Chen, passed a resolution allowing the people of Taiwan to exercise their democratic right to voice their views on the missile build-up across the strait and the Chinese military threat in general.
This "defensive referendum," to take place next March, has since been labeled by Beijing as a provocation designed to upset the status quo in the region. Similarly, any talk in Taiwan of moving democracy forward by adopting a new constitution is seen in China as treacherous.
There is no doubt that it is China that is instigating fundamental change across the Taiwan Strait, and that it is the Chinese dictatorship that is trying to strangle Taiwan's democracy movement.
In this context, Bush's statement during the summit at the White House is both ironic and unfortunate. It is ironic because the US seems to object to the Taiwanese expressing their political views peacefully through a referendum at a time when the US is sending troops to distant lands to fight terror and promote democracy. It is unfortunate because the US seems to have sided with a country that is bent on annexing a neighbor that is seeking only peaceful, dignified coexistence with all nations.
To rebuke Taiwan for upsetting the status quo is really barking up the wrong tree.
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