Few if any government officials, experts or academics who have an interest in cross-strait relations would disagree that the next four years will likely be a time of important changes and perhaps high tensions. Many problems are intractable and will require political will, innovative policies and the right people to address them.
With regard to cross-strait relations, what are the more immediate priorities of the three principal players? For the US, it has an upcoming election that inevitably means short-term solutions, or temporary fixes on problems that arise before election day. National security interests will trump economic problems. It must continue to engage itself in a difficult war on terrorism worldwide on the one hand, and cope with a war to expand democracy in the Middle East on the other. On cross-strait relations, therefore, Washington's objective is peace and stability there while it addresses these two wars elsewhere.
China, too, has larger priorities elsewhere. Economic growth must continue or risk social instability. To maintain that growth, Beijing has had to accept constraints in dealing with issues in the international community.
China's focus for the short term is to prevent Taiwan's de-jure independence. That objective has not been successful, particularly its hopes for a more congenial Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or the election defeat of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan and even for its problems in Hong Kong.
In Taiwan, the government's priorities are largely domestic, but have important implications for the cross-strait relationships. The most urgent is gaining a solid majority from the Legislative Yuan elections in December, or face deadlock on other objectives. Re-engineering the Constitution and the government institutions under it, and implementing the restructuring of the economy all will be high on this list of priorities.
As for cross-strait relations, Taipei is unlikely to accept being pushed into a position that prevents independence, but allows only a unification that it can agree upon. It also will have to insist that any decision on the relationship with China will have to be the choice of its people. Taiwan's "red lines" such as these will likely grow -- and change -- as its democratic system evolves.
China, like Taiwan, does not want the disaster a war would bring, but it does want to move in a direction that will put Taiwan under its fold. It does so by using considerable resources, and perhaps bargaining chips, in influencing the international community to block Taiwan's participation in it. On that score it has been very successful.
More worrisome, especially from the US standpoint, is the military activity of China, including the modernization of Beijing's military forces. More obvious and therefore even more worrisome is the 500 plus missiles stationed across the Strait and clearly meant to intimidate Taiwan. Recently, Beijing has pressed Washington to restrain Taiwan on a number of issues opposed by China. Though the US administration for the most part has been able to avoid being a mediator for either side, America's need for support in global issues continues to grow.
As for the US, the testimony given to the House International Affairs Committee on April 21 by Assistant Secretary James Kelly is used by government officials to describe US-Taiwan relations.
On political matters especially, there are some issues that may inevitably bring a much more intrusive US involvement in Taiwan's domestic affairs. Though it is not yet clear that will be the case, such issues as a "move in the direction of independence," or "prudence" in managing cross-strait relations, or determining what amounts to a "change in the status quo," or what can be considered "provocative," will require unusual dexterity -- or imagination -- and a need for the right people to manage the relationship.
What is needed most is some ideas that might help address problems -- a better way of communicating with each other in particular. It is unrealistic to use the rules of yesterday to manage the cross-strait relations of today with problems that are so different from those of the past. Washington's attention is much more on other areas of the globe, China has become active in the international community and Taiwan has become a full fledged democracy. That calls for changes in how we communicate with each other -- but as always, with caution and understanding.
One factor that should be studied is how to cope with the speed with which information can impact on policy decisions. A statement in one country by someone who matters is known worldwide almost immediately. The meaning behind that statement often brings a reaction by other countries before it has been publicly explained. This is a world-wide problem, of course, but narrowed down to the sensitive cross-strait relationships it can and should be fixed.
Dialogue between the two sides in some form -- and there already exists such a channel if Beijing wishes to use it -- is the best option by far. It would be useful not only for discussions on political matters, but economic matters, and the ability to deal with tragedies and the inevitable problems of individuals .It would also bring restraint on both sides as they would want the dialogue to continue.
Normal diplomatic communications already exist between the US and China. Dealing with the US' self-inflicted restrictions on communications with counterparts in Taiwan, however, are more complicated but should be a matter between Washington and Taipei. In any event, the US has established its relationship with Taiwan as "unofficial" and it could change the way it is conducted. In any event, it would not in any way change the status quo.
Another option for better communications is the use of a special envoy. Probably more difficult for both the US and Taiwan, is the matter of who talks to whom should such a channel be established. The disadvantage here is that the experts in the bureaucracy, troublesome in time-consuming consensus gathering, but vital in preventing costly mistakes, are not involved.
Still another option that might be useful is establishing a small cross-strait task group in all three governments, who would meet periodically or as needed, for the US separately with China and Taiwan at first but hopefully eventually becoming tripartite meetings, to help prevent misunderstanding. Whatever means used, it is both important and urgent that a regular system of discussing cross-strait issues be done before mistakes or misunderstandings develop.
In countries where national security tensions are uncommon, regular communications are sufficient. Where national security tensions are continuous, the purpose of improving communications is to resolve problems quickly, before misunderstanding jells and tensions grow.
Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan.
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