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Monday, Nov. 1, 2004

Can Taiwan, China stop baiting the other?

HONG KONG -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, during his two-day visit to Beijing, tried to persuade Chinese leaders that Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian's offer of talks provided an opportunity for a cross-strait dialogue, but, as expected, Powell was rebuffed.

The outcome was predictable because, as Chen knows well, China's precondition for talks is that Taiwan accept the "one China" principle and stop its continuing move toward independence. As long as Chen refuses to do so, talks are not possible, no matter how many "olive branches" he ostentatiously holds out.

The Taiwan leader's "Double Tenth" speech was delivered to mark the 93rd anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China on the mainland -- a time when Taiwan was still a Japanese colony. Yet Chen declared: "The sovereignty of the Republic of China is vested with the 23 million people of Taiwan. The Republic of China is Taiwan, and Taiwan is the Republic of China. This is an indisputable fact."

Chen had let it be known ahead of time that he was going to respond to a mainland statement issued May 17, just three days before his inauguration, that Taiwan faced a choice: It could pull back from a "dangerous lurch toward independence" -- which case there could be talks leading to the formal ending of the state of hostility and peaceful and stable cross-strait relations -- or, if "the Taiwan leaders should cling to their "Taiwan independence" position, hopes for peace, stability, mutual benefit and a win-win scenario in cross-strait relations will evaporate."

In his seemingly conciliatory speech, Chen called for the "resumption of cross-strait dialogue" and a "code of conduct" across the Taiwan strait without any suggestion that he would no longer press for Taiwan independence. The most interesting part of his speech was a suggestion that talks held in 1992 be used as a basis for a new dialogue. In 1992, both sides accepted a "one China" principle, leading to a breakthrough meeting in Singapore the following year. Yet Chen conspicuously refrained from mentioning the words "one China" policy.

Chen's real audience was not China but the international community, in particular the United States, and a domestic audience. In fact, most likely the speech was approved by Washington ahead of time since the State Department praised it as "constructive" hours after its delivery.

Beijing is in danger of losing the public-relations war. It may see Chen's call for an easing of tensions as nothing but "lies," but the international community hears only the call and sees its rejection by China. It is important for China to show that tension in the strait does not stem from the mainland's inflexibility.

Given the current state of affairs, it appears unlikely that there will be any breakthrough until new thinking -- or new leadership -- emerges. In the mean time, the best thing to do is to shelve the issue.

This, in effect, is what David Dean, the first head of the American Institute in Taiwan, suggests. Recently, Dean proposed that Taiwan ask the U.S. to broker a five-year agreement with China during which Taiwan would promise to forsake the idea of independence while China promises not to attack Taiwan.

Since China has said it will attack Taiwan if it declares independence, and Taiwan has asserted it will declare independence if attacked by China, a promise by both sides not to take any radical action that would provoke a countermove by the other is a worthwhile goal. As Dean has said, such an agreement would benefit all the parties concerned -- China, Taiwan and the U.S.

It remains to be seen whether such a proposal elicits a positive response from either side of the Taiwan Strait.

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

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