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Monday, April 29, 2002

The virtue of keeping mum on Taiwan

LOS ANGELES -- From Beijing's perspective, the only acceptable U.S. public statement on Taiwan is no statement at all.

America is such a looming presence in Asia that even a seemingly sensible iteration of existing policy can sound to Chinese mainland ears -- and perhaps to others' -- like something between a colonial command and an imperialistic invasion. So when careful-spoken Adm. Dennis Blair, head of the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, had the temerity to raise a red flag about China's growing deployment of short-range missiles along its side of the Taiwan Strait, it was nothing new. The Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress decades ago, commits the United States to help Taiwan maintain its self-defense capability.

That's the only point Blair was trying to make. It's true, he said in the speech at the Asia Society, Hong Kong Center, that these new missiles cannot yet tip the balance of power, but "if they continue to increase in number and accuracy, there will come a time when they threaten the sufficient defense of Taiwan." Then, suggested the admiral, Taiwan might need a lifesaving raft of U.S. defensive missiles to keep it from sinking.

Such a statement is fair enough when viewed objectively. But let's look at it the way people who live on both sides of the Taiwan Straits might.

For starters, points out Lien Chan, chairman of the opposition Nationalist Party in Taiwan, statements like Blair's both help and hurt. Helpfully, they reduce Taiwan's sense of international isolation; but, far less usefully, over time they could embolden a Taipei government to overestimate the extent to which the U.S. would support Taiwan.

Suppose the offshore island of 22 million, now governed by the proindependence Democratic People's Party, were to lean toward a formal, irrevocable declaration of permanent separation from the mainland? Such a provocation -- at odds with wiser official U.S. policy -- could anger Beijing into launching a devastating pre-emptive war. Would not history then judge those well-intentioned public expressions of support by U.S. leaders -- even ones as carefully hewn as Blair's -- as having eroded Taiwan security? Beijing has been consistent on the Taiwan independence issue: There would be war.

In fact, mainland hawks soar into happy flights of fancy whenever the U.S. pokes its nose into others' business (a complaint, by the way, voiced by many other nations). One factor that cannot be overstated is the desire of some Chinese circles to exploit roiling anti-American nationalism on the mainland.

Blair didn't intend to do that, of course; and, in all fairness, even Beijing should admit that the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, especially under Blair and his equally thoughtful predecessor Joe Prueher (who wound up as President Bill Clinton's ambassador to China), has not been irresponsible in its statements.

It's not that Blair really said anything dangerous; it's that, from the mainland perspective, he said anything at all. It is hoped that President George W. Bush, when he sat down over the weekend in the Oval Office with Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao, President Jiang Zemin's apparent successor, listened carefully -- and not just with deeply committed anticommunist ears.

The Chinese bottom-line goal today is not conquest but cash. They don't want to invade Taiwan; they just want to add it, without triggering World War III, to their portfolio. China's leaders are shooting for some kind of cross-strait political and economic mutual fund, as it were.

The Chinese media have been de-emphasizing growing tension and emphasizing economic ties. So have the Taiwanese. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's government has given cross-strait investment new encouragement. Do current trends have the smell of war? No -- unless one obsesses over the missile buildup. For an international perspective, compare the level of today's cross-straits tensions to the feral ferocity of the Middle East. There is no comparison, and there may never be.

Listen carefully to most (though, sadly, not all) top-level Taiwan government officials (as I did recently in Los Angeles during a quickly arranged, off-the-record session), and what you hear, far more often than not, is not the ranting of raging bulls but rather the quiet sense that China-Taiwan is not an Arab-Israeli imbroglio. After all, both sides of the waters are Chinese.

Yes, the Taiwanese want all the U.S. military equipment they can get. But, in private at least, they do not greatly take issue with the Beijing view that the strait would probably be calmer if only "the foreigners" would stay away, keep their peace and, most of all, their silence -- even when they mean well.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.

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