Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Chinese rhetoric won't budge US

By Sushil Seth

China's rhetoric about Taiwan has sharpened a fair bit. The re-election of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has jolted its leadership. It's not that Chen has said anything to upset China (indeed, his inaugural address was rather tame), but because China's leadership believes that his moderation is not real. He is still committed to an independent and sovereign Taiwan, as Beijing sees it.

According to Wu Nengyuan (吳能遠), the pro-Beijing director of the Institute of Modern Taiwan Studies at the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences, "China no longer trusts him. It doesn't care what he says ? his goal of Taiwan's independence hasn't changed. If he pushes Taiwan's independence past China's baseline, then it's dangerous."

The question then is: Has Chen done that? Apparently not. What then is making Beijing up the ante? There are a number of explanations.

First, it could have something to do with an ongoing power struggle between President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and the military commission chairman, Jiang Zemin (江澤民). Jiang, it would seem, is keen to hold on to his position as the country's military supremo, thus constricting Hu's control of nation's affairs. A toughening of China's Taiwan rhetoric would strengthen Jiang's position. Indeed, the People's Liberation Army is slated to hold large-scale military exercises as "a substantial warning."

Another reason is a sense of overwhelming frustration. Bei-jing was hoping to create a substantial pro-China constituency within Taiwan. That hasn't happened. Indeed, Chen polled more votes in this year's election than in 2000. And among his political opponents, most hedged or opposed unification with China. As Wu has said, "There's no longer any politician in Taiwan they can rely on for unification because there's no one that stands for unification."

The sense of frustration is further compounded because Beijing is unable to effectively use its new leverage with the US (from Iraq and North Korea) on Taiwan. Bei-jing was obviously encouraged by US President George W. Bush's gentle rebuke, some months ago, cautioning Chen against changing the status quo. But since then the US has maintained its old position of encouraging dialogue across the Taiwan Strait.

During her recent China visit, US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice came under intense pressure on Taiwan. She reportedly rebuffed Chinese demands to curb arms sales to Taiwan. Ever since Sino-US relations were resumed in the 1970s, Beijing has sought to use its US connection to facilitate the unification of Taiwan with China. The curbing of US arms sales would be an important step in that direction.

A recent news conference in Washington called by a Chinese embassy spokesman would suggest a new (rather unusual) effort to highlight the Taiwan issue in the Sino-US equation. According to the embassy spokesman, US actions on Taiwan had undermined the "one China" policy underpinning US-China relations. A failure to rectify the situation would harm bilateral relations, including Chinese cooperation on North Korea's nuclear policy.

According to The Washington Post, Rice was told when in China that Beijing would "not sit idly by" if arms sales to Taiwan went ahead. Taiwan is thus said to be "an obstacle" to US-China relations. Indeed, according to the Post report, "Chinese officials appear to believe the [Bush] administration's policies on human rights, democracy and Hong Kong `added up to a policy aimed at regime change in Beijing.'"

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