Mon, May 24, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Horse-trading in a hornets' nest

With unseemly haste, the government announced yesterday that Taiwan had not received any US request to send marines to Iraq. Nor, it added, had it any intention of doing so.

We cannot help but think that this addition was unfortunate. Of course we can understand why it was given: Iraq is a hornets' nest that nobody in their right mind wants to go anywhere near.

Anglo-American intervention in that country was illegal under international law and has proved to be a disaster in which an ugly but relatively powerless regime, posing no threat to anyone except its own people, has been replaced by a terrorists' playground with the potential to set the entire Middle East aflame.

Why would Taiwan want any part of this? As one commentator said to this newspaper on Saturday night, "What Taiwanese soldier, or soldier's family, is going to support troops being sent to Iraq after seeing the horror of the Berg video?" This comment probably reflects mainstream opinion.

There also is concern that Taiwan might -- almost certainly would, in fact -- become a terrorist target. We have seen how al-Qaeda likes to nibble at the edge of the occupying coalition. They might not be able to push the US or the British out, but an atrocity here and there can deter the bit-part players, as we saw from the Madrid train bombing. Probably the Poles or the Japanese will be next. Does Taiwan, where security is a joke -- March 19 surely taught us that much -- want to find itself in this coalition of the vulnerable?

The interesting thing about such prudential considerations is that while they are perfectly sensible, indeed compelling, as far as any individual Taiwanese goes, they do not necessarily represent the national interest.

It might seem contradictory to suggest that something might be bad for Taiwanese but good for Taiwan, but nations have to have a longer view than the immediate self-interest of their citizens. Indeed, leadership is often about persuading people to take the difficult but ultimately more fruitful option.

So why should Taiwan help out in Iraq? Why should it, at the very least, refrain from closing out a US request before it is even made? Simply because Taiwan owes its existence as an independent polity to US intervention and subsequent US support.

To a very great degree, Taiwan and its people are able to make plans for the future because of the Taiwan Relations Act. Surely it ill becomes them to shelter under this umbrella without being willing to offer their most powerful ally something in return. Peaceniks might riposte that Taiwan is willing to offer money and expertise. To which we can only say that it is not money or expertise that America needs, but boots on the ground.

We are further baffled by the government spokesman's remark yesterday that "to send troops to Iraq would mean raising our military ties with the US to the level of a quasi-military alliance. We have no such plans now." But isn't this kind of military relationship exactly what Taiwan has long wanted?

And here is another consideration: US President George W. Bush, whatever might be thought of his wider foreign policy, has been a good friend to Taiwan. Almost certainly John Kerry will be no such thing. Those who remember the Clinton administration's Taiwan policy have to view a Democrat in the White House with alarm.

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