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Sunday, May 2, 2004

Taiwan Strait status quo grows riskier

HONG KONG -- The Shanghai Communique, signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972, asserted: "The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position."

It was on this basis that the U.S. and China normalized their relationship in 1979. Both Taiwan and the mainland agreed that there was only one China. The two governments were also similar in that both were essentially dictatorships.

Now, however, much has changed. The mainland has experienced spectacular economic growth, but the Communist Party continues to monopolize power. Taiwan, though, has become a democracy where human rights are safeguarded. What's more, Taiwan has repudiated the idea of "one China," the one element that the two sides had in common for half a century.

Washington, trying to maintain a modicum of order, keeps up appearances by saying it continues to practice a "one China" policy. However, there is a growing sense that the current situation cannot be maintained much longer.

Two influential academics, David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies and the Nixon Center, and Kenneth Lieberthal of Michigan University, a former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, recently coauthored an article in The Washington Post headlined "Heading Off the Next War."

"The framework that has buttressed peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades is disintegrating," they wrote. "Changes in Taiwan, as well as some of Beijing's counterproductive behavior, are undermining the foundations. Unless an improved framework is adopted soon, war across the strait will become increasingly probable, with the United States likely to be drawn into it."

Certainly, all sides recognize the situation as one fraught with the potential for miscalculation. For a long time, Washington's policy was one of "strategic ambiguity," keeping both the mainland and Taiwan guessing as to whether it might intervene if war should break out.

While U.S. President George W. Bush appeared to give Taiwan a blank check with remarks he made in 2001 when he said he would do "whatever it took" to help Taiwan defend itself, he inserted ambiguity with his public castigation of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian in December.

The U.S. is encouraging both sides to engage in a dialogue to lower tension. However, as long as Beijing insists on the precondition that Taiwan first accept the "one China" principle, no dialogue will be held. And in the absence of dialogue, it is difficult to bring about an improved framework.

Meanwhile, the U.S. warns Taiwan not to go too far with acts that Beijing finds provocative, such as holding a referendum and drafting a new constitution, while warning Beijing not to resort to the use of force. But there is a danger that somehow, sometime, one of the three parties might miscalculate.

The evolution of Taiwan into a democracy and the heightening of a Taiwanese sense of national identity are fundamental changes that cannot be swept under the carpet. Today, no government in Taiwan can cut a deal with Beijing without the consent of the electorate. Exactly how to handle a democratic Taiwan is something that Beijing -- and perhaps even Washington -- has not yet mastered.

Meanwhile, a rising China hopes to find a way of taking over Taiwan despite American objections, while an increasingly assertive Taiwan is frustrated at its continuing international ostracism. All the while, the U.S. tries to ensure that Beijing will be a friend rather than an enemy as it plays an increasingly important international role.

The Bush administration seeks to manage the Beijing relationship by emphasizing its "one China" policy. But even there, James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, acknowledged at a congressional hearing to mark the 25th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act that what the U.S. considers a "one China" policy is not what China considers a "one China" policy. In fact, he suggested, it was difficult to define just what the U.S. means by its policy.

In the meantime, China is frustrated that the U.S. offers increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan. The U.S. is frustrated that Taiwan has not allocated funds to purchase such arms. Taiwan, alone, seems confident that it has nothing to fear. In fact, so sure is Taiwan of American support that it has substantially reduced defense spending for well over a decade. In such a delicate situation, the smallest misunderstanding can lead to disastrous consequences.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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