Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 8 News List

A nationalistic China can't let go

By Sushil Seth

If Taiwan was looking for publicity, it has gotten it in abundance as a result of its presidential election. Whether or not the nation wanted this kind of publicity is another question. But the important thing is that the democratic process, with its necessary checks and balances, will resolve the dispute, and hopefully democracy will emerge stronger.

When the administration of US President George W. Bush congratulated President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) on his narrow election victory, it wasn't an endorsement of the individual but of the democratic process. It is not surprising, though, that Beijing wasn't amused by Washington's congratulatory message.

The political confusion in Taiwan arising from the presidential election was an ideal opportunity for Beijing to fish in troubled waters. China, therefore, lost no time in warning that it wouldn't sit idly by if the situation got out of control. But the US' congratulatory message spoiled the fun, thus putting Beijing in a foul mood. Washington, in effect, told Beijing to stop manufacturing a crisis as an excuse for intervention.

There are two important elements to the Taiwan situation.

The first is the country's internal political cohesion or lack of it. Although a healthy political debate is the essence of democracy, it needs to be conducted without bringing the process into disrepute.

If the democratic process comes under a cloud, there is a danger of democracy's descending into "mobocracy."

Chen's narrow victory, and the resulting opposition protests, have tended to create a sense of crisis. Even the assassination attempt was regarded by some as a stage-managed affair that was designed to tilt the election result in Chen's favor. Now that these doubts are being sorted out through legal and institutional mechanisms, not much harm is being done to democracy.

But it is important that Taiwan's political class, across the spectrum, create agreed-upon national goals to maintain internal cohesion. Political debate and competition will then center on ways of achieving these goals. For instance, it would be helpful if there were an agreed-upon national position on the question of Taiwanese identity -- whether Taiwan is a sovereign political entity or whether it would rather maintain some ambiguity and determine its status at some future time.

Without an agreed-upon national position on this fundamental issue, Taiwan will remain prone to external manipulation. Its polity will lose direction and become even more fractious. Not surprisingly, Beijing seeks to exploit Taiwan's contradictions to bring about collapse from within.

The second important element regarding Taiwan is the US' commitment to its defense under the Taiwan Relations Act. Beijing believes that because the US is stretched thin because of Iraq and the war on terrorism, China has acquired leverage that it can use to influence the US' foreign and strategic policies, particularly regarding Taiwan. China expects that because of its cooperation with the US on terrorism and North Korea, Washington, at the very least, should contain Chen on the question of Taiwan's independence.

But when Beijing sought to exploit the electoral confusion, Washington wasted no time in setting the record straight by congratulating Chen on his re-election. In other words, China was warned off Taiwan. Therefore, a continued US commitment to the defense of Taiwan is an important prerequisite for Taiwan's identity.

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