Sat, Jul 24, 2004 - Page 8 News List

There's wisdom in speaking softly

By Trung Latieule

The emergence of a national identity has led Taiwan to redefine its US policy. This could hurt US relations if domestic considerations prevail over strategic interests. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in his inauguration address on May 20, however, seemed to placate US concerns.

He promised that the revision of the Constitution would not touch on the issues of statehood and sovereignty. He also tacitly reiterated the "five noes" pledge he made four years ago.

Beneath that moderation, however, Taiwan has quietly moved toward a more aggressive foreign policy. Presidential advisor Koo Kuan-min (辜寬敏) has called on the US to revise its "one China" policy. And Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Chen (陳唐山) has said that the international community should respect Taiwan as a sovereign and independent nation.

The policy shift led to diplomatic tensions with the US in April. Mark Chen stressed that independence and sovereignty were Taiwan's status quo. But Washington rebuked that stance. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly said that Washington would only agree to the status quo as the US defined it.

The US definition of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is quite simple, even though the US policy may seem contradictory. In theory, Washington acknowledges the three communiques it signed with Beijing that say Taiwan is part of China. In practice, however, it considers Taiwan's status to be unresolved and is committed to help the nation defend itself under the Taiwan Relations Act.

The cross-strait status quo, according to Washington, means that China must refrain from using or threatening to use force against Taiwan, while Taiwan must avoid provoking Beijing with unilateral moves toward de facto independence.

The diplomatic status quo is reinforced by the military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. China's weight in the status quo at first derived from the support of the majority of countries that echo the "one China" principle. But the rise of a Taiwanese identity has weakened the status quo by diminishing Beijing's bargaining power.

To regain leverage, China is trying to tip the military balance in its favor by upping the ante in the cross-strait arms race. But "balance of power" tends to be a tricky concept. If China's goal is to invade Taiwan, the balance of power is, for now, in Taipei's favor because Beijing does not have the amphibious capacity nor the adequate air cover it requires to carry out an invasion, according to a recent Pentagon report.

But if China's objective is to threaten Taiwan's integrity with its 500 missiles, then Beijing already has an edge, since Taipei hasn't acquired the Patriot anti-missile batteries offered by the Bush administration, and is still negotiating to obtain the AEGIS defense system.

The Chen administration should ask Washington to include Taiwan with Japan and South Korea in its proposed missile defense shield, because it looks unlikely that Taiwan can sustain an arms race with China in the long term.

The "one China" policy is a by-product of the Cold War. Its aim was to woo China and confront the Soviet Union with the possibility of a two-front war. But it still serves US interests. The challenge of terrorism has now replaced the Soviet threat and Washington needs China's cooperation over North Korea and the Middle East.

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