Mon, Mar 18, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Now's the time to build confidence

By Antonio C.Hsiang 向駿

A reorganization of Taiwan's military was enacted on March 1 in which all presidential authority over the armed forces was transferred to the defense minister, who used to be responsible for the administrative system only. Under the new National Defense Law (國防法) and Defense Ministry Organizational Law (國防組織法), the defense minister is the highest official in charge of all military affairs. It is one of the recent changes, both inside and outside Taiwan, that have created a window of opportunity for establishing confidence-building measures across the Taiwan Strait.

The domestic political situation in Taiwan has now matured enough for rapprochement with China. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has moved toward the middle ground since he was elected in March 2000. The success of the DPP in last year's legislative elections has consolidated his powerbase and he now has more resources with which to play the role of Nixon in Taiwan. Chen, at a ceremony marking the enactment of the new military structure, said: "Military conflict between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait is against the interests of both sides and the primary goal of the military is to maintain the peace." He urged Beijing to build mutual-trust mechanisms to maintain cross-strait peace.

Tang Yao-ming (湯曜明), Taiwan's defense minister since Feb. 1, understands well that the major goal of Taiwan's armed forces is to prevent war. In fact, during his time as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Tang worked to enhance the transparency of Taiwan's military affairs to reduce the chance of a misunderstanding sparking a conflict with China. In his first speech as defense minister, Tang even said building confidence across the Strait was one of his top priorities.

China's interests will be better served by cooperation rather than intimidation. As a rising power, Beijing's leaders are intelligent enough to realize that China's economic development depends on a stable political environment, both domestically and internationally. Any serious attempt to use force in the Strait would dislocate China's fragile economy. In fact, the majority of people in China are also reluctant to see any conflict with Taiwan. According to a survey released on March 2, 92 percent of interviewees agreed with Bush's stand on a "peaceful resolution" of cross-strait issues.

Since both Taiwan and China became members of the WTO last year, economic and trade ties will expand further, raising the cost of conflict. A war would interrupt the foreign trade on which China is increasingly dependent. The Chinese government will also be reluctant to resolve the Taiwan issue militarily while it prepares to stage the 2008 Olympic Games.

Finally, relations among Washington, Beijing and Taipei have become stable enough to build confidence across the Strait. As with the Clinton administration, Taiwan remains a key foreign-affairs issue in the administration of US President George W. Bush. However, unlike Clinton, who made too many concessions to Beijing during his visit to China in 1998, Bush has taken a tougher line, reiterating his support for the Taiwan Relations Act, a 1979 law requiring the US to sell defensive arms to Taiwan, during his visit to Beijing last month.

Bush wisely and correctly pointed out in his speech in Qinghua University (清華大學) that he wants a "peaceful resolution" to the standoff between Taipei and Beijing. Maintaining the status quo in the Strait serves the best interests of the US. Any sign that Washington is favoring one side or the other risks emboldening one or the other to challenge that status quo. Confidence-building measures across the Strait are also a goal of the US.

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