Tue, Oct 07, 2003 - Page 8 News List

A diminishing role in world affairs

By Robert Sutter

In the months leading to the March 20 presidential election, contending political leaders have intensified the already highly acrimonious partisan wrangling and mudslinging that have allowed for little progress on issues of substantive benefit for the overall security and well being of the Tai-wanese in the last few years. While these leaders maneuver for short-term gain in the domestic political arena, the cross-strait balance of power and the overall international balance of influence affecting the nation's future ominously and unrelentingly moves against democratic Taiwan.

China has markedly advanced its already advantageous position in international affairs since the 1970s, when the PRC replaced the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) in the UN, scores of countries switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and the US cut its diplomatic, defense and other official ties with Taiwan for the sake of normalizing relations with China.

Beijing is more determined than ever to isolate Taiwan from official international interchange as part of a broader effort to press Taiwan's government to come to terms on unification in ways acceptable to China.

An important opportunity for Taiwan came with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- developments that seemed to end the main reason why the US and some other Western powers felt impelled to cut back ties with Taiwan for the sake of improving relations with China in seeking a broader united front against the USSR.

The concurrent Tiananmen crackdown shocked the US and much of the rest of the world, prompting sanctions and pressures on Beijing from various quarters. Taiwan's moves toward greater democracy after the ending of martial law in 1987 also received widespread praise and positive media attention. Arguably Taiwan should have been able to make substantial diplomatic and foreign policy gains in this new international environment, but its showing was poor as the reality saw few countries willing to confront China over the "Taiwan issue."

China's economic prowess grew markedly in the 1990s; the China market now far outshines Taiwan's struggling economy; if international actors are forced to choose, they generally choose to side with Beijing. Even many businesspeople in Taiwan have come to similar judgments, assessing that their interests are best served by cooperation with the rapidly growing Chinese economy.

Economic strength has fed military strength, while the end of the USSR meant that Beijing could focus more on coastal threats and especially the danger of Taiwan moving toward independence -- an anathema to Beijing that appeared increasingly likely under the leadership of former president Lee Teng-hui (李光耀) and President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

The result is an increasingly rapid buildup of military forces designed to improve Chinese power projection capabilities to coerce Taiwan. US President George W. Bush's administration was more supportive of Taiwan than the previous US administration -- representing one of the few bright spots on Taipei's foreign horizon.

Prevailing conditions, notably US power and purpose, sustain a balance in the Taiwan Strait and in East Asia that for now preserves stability and buys some time for Taiwan. Perhaps because they take US support for granted, Tai-wanese leaders of various political camps have seemed less attentive to solidifying relations with the Bush administration, the US government most supportive of Tai-wan in over 30 years. They have focused instead on domestic political maneuvers, cross-strait relations and foreign affairs that have included criticisms of US policies and behavior, and actions in cross-strait relations and trade relations that have complicated US interests and Taipei's relations with the US.

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