Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Chen plays key role in cross-strait relations

By Richard Halloran

Gradually, with hardly anyone noticing, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has emerged as the most influential player in the volatile triangle of relations between China, the US and his own nation.

The reason: The Chinese are stuck with a rigid "one China" policy that shows no inkling of imagination or flexibility and the Americans are paying only sporadic attention, hoping that the issue will somehow go away. That leaves Chen latitude to maneuver between them.

Even so, the chances of a miscalculation by Chen -- or the Chinese or the Americans -- continues to make the future of Taiwan the most dangerous long-term confrontation in Asia.

The standoff begins with Bei-jing's relentless claim that Taiwan is a province of China, and its insistence that the Taiwanese accept that demand. The Chinese have repeatedly threatened to use military force to conquer Taiwan if the Taiwanese declare independence or delay unification.

Beijing seems to realize that attacking Taiwan would incur devastating economic losses. And China's military leaders, after years of brushing off the US commitment to help defend Taiwan, have evidently begun to realize the potential US military role in the defense of Taiwan.

In Washington, the Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror, has no long-range objective in its China or Taiwan policy. In recent weeks, President George W. Bush has concentrated on patching up relations with traditional allies and running for re-election. Nonetheless, US military officers have quietly expanded their contacts with Taiwan's armed forces, sending observers to Taiwanese war games to learn their strengths and weaknesses and how US and Taiwanese forces might mesh their operations in the event of cross-strait hostilities.

The US officers have also continued to have limited contact with Chinese officers in an effort to deter them. In a private exchange, a senior Chinese officer harangued his American counterpart about how Beijing would brook no foreign interference on the issue of Taiwan. To which the American replied, dryly: "In the Pacific, we own the sky and we own the water," meaning air and naval supremacy, "so let's talk about something else."

In this precarious equation, Chen has been building a consensus at home intended to sustain Taiwan's continued separation from the mainland without a declaration of independence.

In Beijing, the new regime led by President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is stuck on dead center because it is beset by the former leader, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), who is still chairman of the military commission and the People's Liberation Army. Hu thus cannot show himself to be weak on the Taiwan issue.

Hu is further hemmed in because hostilities with Taiwan and the US would severely damage the trade and foreign investment vital to a China with 300 million unemployed or underemployed people -- 40 percent of the labor force. Last year, China exported US$152 billion worth of goods to the US, its biggest export market.

The Bloomberg news agency reported that China has accumulated US$527 billion in foreign investment and has another US$1 trillion contracted. The US, Japan and Taiwan are the largest foreign investors in China -- and that would disappear in a war.

Several years ago, many Chinese asserted that the US would not defend Taiwan. That notion has changed; as the US Defense Department said recently: "Beijing sees Washington as the principal hurdle to any attempt to use military force to regain Taiwan."

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