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Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010

Taiwanese perspective on Sino-U.S. relations


LOS ANGELES — Unless they somehow manage to entwine us in World War III with China, our friends in Taiwan truly are our friends.

Over and over again, Beijing has let the world know that any dramatic move by the offshore island toward permanent and formal independence would trigger war. To back this threat up, the good people of the People's Liberation Army have tilted more than a thousand mainland missiles in Taiwan's direction.

This is serious business. Last year the prestigious and nonpartisan RAND Corporation of Santa Monica, Calif., concluded that the military balance over the Taiwan Strait had overwhelmingly tipped westward toward the mainland and that a full-scale attack from China would be very difficult to repel.

Unless, of course, you-know-who intervened on the side of the little guy. But there are problems with that, because the United States is currently (a) bogged down militarily in Afghanistan, (b) still in Iraq, (c) worried to death and militarily involved in Pakistan and (d) hovering over the treat of Iran's nuclear ambitions as if the military option is still prominent.

All of the above means that the U.S. has enough on its plate already. Having to defend Taiwan would be no picnic. So, it is good to be told to relax by respected diplomats like Jason Yuan, visiting Los Angeles the other day. Invited by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council to serve up a speech on Beijing-Taiwan-Washington, Taiwan's top-tier representative to the U.S. was all measured reassurance and calculated calm, expressed in a blessedly concise speech.

This guy is good. With many of his friends and relatives here (most of them seemed to be in the audience!), he sought to soothe America's nerves.

You may have noticed that over just the last half dozen or so years, China — in the minds of America — has morphed from Sleeping Midget into something like Insomniac Giant.

Yuan suggests some serious adult perspective: "Yes, China is rising," but don't reach for the bottles of Valium just yet. "Your media people never think to ask whether the U.S. needs China more or China needs the U.S. more."

Taiwan's diplomat was more than ready to answer this one: China needs the U.S. more. "There is still a very long way for them to go," he insists.

Yes, China will surpass the Japanese economy as No. 2 before long, but that's solely on the scale of total economy. Japan only has but a tenth of China's population; its per capita economy remains light years ahead of China's, as does that of the U.S. Facts and figures are important but sometimes the full reality is hidden in the footnotes.

Yuan had the packed ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel laughing after every fourth sentence, but the topic is no joking matter, of course. To further his thesis that China's military is not about to leap all over the world like some dragon on meth, he pulled back a few pages of history.

Remember, he said, that until recently China was weak. It was almost always embroiled in some kind of war, whether internal or foreign. After decades of that errant and expensive nonsense, its smart people finally came to the conclusion that war of any kind was the enemy of China's advancement, not an intelligent way of nurturing it. "So they know that peace and stability is good for China," he points out.

To this end, China, he believes, will bend over backward to avoid war. "Yes, the rising tiger is coming this way. And, yes, it is good for the U.S. to be aware of this."

At the same time, he counsels that we here in America should keep the China threat in perspective. Otherwise, we may make important decisions on trade and other issues that are out of sync — out of emotional fear rather than prudent calculation.

Yuan's diplomatic track record is solid enough that people know his views are sensible and reliable. They are also rational and unemotional. The problem is that China's sometimes are not.

These days the Chinese are in a lather about President Barack Obama's Feb. 18 meeting with the Dalai Lama and about the impending U.S. sale of helicopters, defensive missiles and other hardware to Taiwan. America, for its part, has its own issues with China, particularly its insistence that the mainland stop stunting its currency's value to make its exported products so cheap that few other national exports can compete in global marketplaces.

Trade, Taiwan and Tibet — these comprise the three horsemen of the apocalypse in the Sino-U.S. diplomatic dance. Handled coolly and carefully, the issues can be kept from boiling over. The problem now, though, is that the world's single most important bilateral relationship is heating up.

On the American side, our economy is not producing jobs and a big national election looms this November. On the Chinese side, tempers are flaring and people are not happy.

Beijing is in a foul mood. Not everything is always so cool and rational, Mr. Jason Yuan. But putting heated international issues into a framework of objective calculation is the diplomat's job, after all. And few do it better than Taiwan's No. 1 in the U.S.

Columnist and veteran journalist Tom Plate, a former university professor, is writing a trilogy of books called "Giants of Asia." © 2010 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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