Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Wen's US visit likely to reaffirm status quo

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德

After a long period of silence on Taiwan's gradual move in the direction of self-determination, the Chinese leadership finally responded with harsh words against President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) push for a referendum and a new constitution.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) called on the US to deter Taiwan from adopting laws that could pave the way for a referendum on the nation's independence, warning that China would "pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland."

The timing of Wen's comments on Taiwan reveals three important things. First, it reflects Beijing's dissatisfaction with Washington's inability to restrain Taipei's unilateral move toward independence, as manifested in Chen's treatment during his recent transit in the US.

Second, it worries Beijing that the pan-blue camp, long perceived as a "safety valve" in preventing independence, has suddenly changed its position on the referendum and constitution and moved to an even more radical position than the president.

Third, it is natural for the Chinese leader to repeat his tough stance on Taiwan before embarking on a visit to the US. Wen is the first Chinese senior leader to visit Washington since the transfer of power earlier this year. By raising the stakes of his trip, Wen could reinforce his image as one of the leading members of China's new generation.

Most people tend to read Wen's statements as a direct message to Washington for failing to stop Taipei from rocking the boat. However, an intensive review on the background of Wen's planned visit displays a more complicated picture.

Despite the fact that American senior officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have repeatedly highlighted the current Sino-US relationship as the best ever, a number of differences exist between Washington and Beijing.

Among them, trade disputes, the North Korea crisis and Taiwan are most important.

The discussion on China's further opening of its markets has long been a hot potato. The Bush administration blames China's trade policies for the loss of US jobs. American officials have argued that China keeps its currency at an artificially low exchange rate, unfairly making its imports cheaper.

Moreover, the Bush administration also needs the Chinese government to provide balance against North Korea's nuclear proliferation.

Under such circumstances, to what extent can the Taiwan issue become an obstacle for Wen's first visit to American soil?

China is upset about Taiwan because its options have been limited in the past couple of years. Missile threats and verbal attacks are no longer effective, as they encourage Taiwanese voters to choose a national leader who can safeguard national dignity.

With its own domestic challenges unsolved, China sees the US as its best hope to influence Taiwan, especially now that Chinese cooperation in the UN Security Council and on the Korean Peninsula have become critical to achieving US goals.

Therefore, the most likely outcome of Wen's discussion of the Taiwan issue with American leaders will be reassurances from Washington reiterating the "one China" policy, as embedded in the Three Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.

Washington will also guarantee the Chinese Premier that the Bush administration has not been sending mixed signals to Taiwan since it has stated publicly that the administration neither supports nor opposes Taiwanese independence. Furthermore, the US will not overly influence Taiwan's domestic politics and election.

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