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Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004

China favored in cross-strait tug-of-war

HONG KONG -- When Singapore's then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Taiwan in July on what was described as a "private and unofficial" trip, China reacted angrily. Among other things, it canceled a visit by its top banker to Singapore and warned darkly of "grave consequences" for which "the Singapore side should take full responsibility."

However, Lee was restored to favor to a large extent when, in his first policy speech as prime minister in August, he reiterated Singapore's "one China" policy and strongly opposed any move by Taiwan toward formal independence.

Calling the cross-strait situation "potentially the most dangerous problem in the region," the prime minister said he has decided that "if Taiwan goes for independence, Singapore will not recognize it. In fact, no Asian country will recognize it. Nor will European countries."

Lee added: "If a war breaks out across the strait, we will be forced to choose between the two sides. As a friend of both sides, any decision will be painful. But if the conflict is provoked by Taiwan, then Singapore cannot support Taiwan."

If war were to break out, other countries besides Singapore would also be forced to choose sides. In fact, the tug of war has started already and, as the Singaporean leader said, no country in either Asia or Europe is likely to support Taiwan -- in large part because many countries are benefiting from China's tremendous economic growth. And Taiwan's biggest supporter, the United States, has made it clear that it does not want President Chen Shui-bian to drag it into a war with China, at a time when Washington has enough headaches dealing with Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Bush administration has repeatedly warned Taiwan not to treat China as a paper tiger and urged the island to strengthen its own defenses rather than rely on the U.S. In a rare public rebuke, President George W. Bush chastised the Taiwan leader in December, saying that while Washington opposes any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo, "the comments and actions by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally."

Within the U.S., there is little stomach for involvement in another foreign conflict. However, if war should break out between China and Taiwan, it would be difficult for Washington not to be involved.

The question, however, is whether any of America's allies in the region would be willing to side with the U.S. against China. It is safe to say that Asian allies such as South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines would prefer to stay on the sidelines. Japan would be put in a most uncomfortable position. European allies, too, will see little reason for their involvement.

Even Australia, America's staunchest ally in the region, is showing signs of nervousness that it may be dragged into such a conflict. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, asked at a recent news conference in Beijing what Canberra would do if the U.S. called on Australia to assist in the defense of Taiwan, replied that under the ANZUS Treaty Australia would not necessarily have to be involved unless the U.S. was directly attacked.

While Prime Minister John Howard distanced himself from his foreign minister's remarks, former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke strongly backed Downer's position that the U.S. could not expect Australia to automatically side with Washington if China attacked Taiwan.

China's rapid economic growth has sucked in imports of Australian raw materials such as natural gas and iron ore. In fact, as China turns into a growth engine, more and more countries are benefiting from its economic development and, quite naturally, are reluctant to antagonize Beijing by siding with the U.S. in any conflict over Taiwan.

Ironically, while translating its own economic strength into political muscle, Beijing is warning Pacific nations against Taiwan's "dollar diplomacy." Of course, it is infinitely preferable that China and Taiwan compete peacefully in the economic realm rather than resort to military action. Given their disproportionate sizes, it is unlikely that Taiwan can prevail in the long run.

Prime Minister Lee certainly sees the outcome being determined by economic forces. As he said, the cross-strait issue "is not a permanent problem" but one that will sooner or later be resolved. "China will continue to grow," he said, "and Taiwan's economy will progressively be integrated with China's. This process is inexorable; there can be no other final outcome."

Frank Ching is Hong Kong-based journalist.

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