Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: China loses the ace in its sleeve

The cross-strait row over the referendum has allowed China and the rest of the world to see that the dispute is not domestic. It is now a full-blown international problem.

The government says it is a domestic matter, but handles it as if it were an international issue. Likewise, the Chinese government says it is a domestic issue, but deals with it exclusively through diplomacy.

China has used the "one China" principle and "one country, two systems" slogan as guidelines to resolve the cross-strait problem. It has opposed foreign interference in the matter, vowing to use force if that happens. But the referendum plan forces China into a difficult position.

If China insists that cross-strait tensions are a domestic issue and objects to foreign interference, then it will eventually have to fall back on the belligerent rhetoric and military posturing it used during the previous presidential elections. Such a strategy proved ineffective, even counterproductive. This time, China is using a strategy of diplomatic encirclement, mobilizing the US, Japan, France and Germany to oppose the referendum and pressuring the government to ditch it.

The director of the Chinese State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office is currently in Washington to lobby US officials in the hope that US pressure may force President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to give up calling a referendum. Even if Chen insists on calling the poll, Beijing hopes that international opprobrium may dent his re-election chances, thereby allowing the pan-blue ticket, with which Beijing feels more comfortable, to fall across the line.

So far China has reaped pretty impressive results from its strategy of applying pressure through third countries. Speaking in front of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), US President George W. Bush said he opposed a referendum that might change the status quo. Speaking in front of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), French President Jacques Chirac clearly opposed the referendum plan. These international obstacles have seriously eroded Chen's diplomatic accomplishments.

But the story is not that simple and certainly does not end here. Despite initial hostility, the effect of announcing the referendum remains uncertain, both domestically and internationally. Chen still has a chance to reverse his fortune.

However effective China's diplomatic maneuvers may be in the short term, it has lost the ace in its sleeve in terms of long-term strategy, because the cross-strait dispute long ago ceased to be a "domestic issue." Beijing itself was complicit in this process, hyping the issue in the international community by ranting over the referendum and mobilizing other countries to get involved. "One China" is no longer defined by what Beijing says, but by international consensus.

By internationalizing the referendum controversy, Beijing has allowed the international media and the global community to better understand Taiwan's plight -- the fact that, in this country, democracy and human rights are being suppressed by the Chinese government and now by other countries too.

So the referendum issue may be detrimental to the government in the short term, but diplomatically the country does not stand to lose so much in the longer term. A great deal will depend however on how much Chen can transform unfavorable circumstances into his favor prior to the election.

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