Sovereignty issue must be resolved
To allay China's fury over his private trip to Taiwan this summer before becoming Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) said that his country will not support Taiwan should it declare formal independence from mainland China. Indeed, no country will, declared Lee.
\nThis diplomatic blow occurred at roughly the same time that Taiwan was failing -- for the 13th time -- in its bid to re-enter the UN, having withdrawn when China was admitted in 1971. When Taiwanese athletes competed in the recent Athens Olympics, advertisements supporting the team were removed. Returning home from a trip to three Central American allies, Premier Yu Shyi-kun's entourage was forced to transit in Okinawa to escape the effects of Typhoon Aere, inciting a protest from China against Japan's government.
\nSuch symbolic politics forms a key part of the mainland's relentless effort to isolate Taiwan internationally. To display its displeasure at Lee Hsien Loong's visit, China's government warned Singapore that a bilateral free-trade deal might be in jeopardy. Commenting on Taiwan's UN application, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan (孔泉) demanded that Taipei stop pursuing its "two Chinas" policy.
\nChina's diplomatic offensive against Taiwan escalated in early August, when President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) telephoned US President George W. Bush to demand a halt to the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan. Hu told Bush that the Taiwan issue was "very sensitive," and that China would "absolutely not tolerate Taiwan independence."
\nAs a result of such pressure, Taiwan has become the most isolated country in modern history. This is all the more glaring in view of its economic and political success. Indeed, that anomaly, if not rectified, is increasingly dangerous.
\nFrustrated by a lack of recognition, popular disgust in Taiwan with terms like "China" and "Chinese" is rising. So is support for distinct countries on each side of the Taiwan Strait.
\nAlthough opinion polls indicate that a majority still supports the status quo, many are beginning to believe that if the country's official name, the Republic of China, is not acceptable to the international community, then another name might be.
\nMillions of people took to the streets during the presidential election last March to demand a name change.
\nThe latest source of contention -- both on the domestic front and in relations with China -- concerns whether to write a new constitution. Enacted in Nanjing before the Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government resettled in Taipei after the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s, Taiwan's Constitution is considered by some an anachronism, unfit for a democracy with a population of more than 23 million.
\nWithin Taiwan, the debate over constitutional reform has led to disturbing developments. Most worrying, it has heightened tensions between Taiwan's various ethnic groups over national identity and relations with China.
\nOf course, Taiwan's strained relations with China have suffered further as a result, with China's government denouncing calls for a new constitution as a calculated move towards independence. China's Taiwan Affairs Office issued a warning on the eve of President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) inauguration in May, trying to force Taipei to choose between war and peace.
\nAlarmed by a potential conflict between the two archrivals, the Bush administration urged Chen, who won a second term in March, to exercise restraint. Consequently, in his inauguration speech on May 20, Chen promised to amend the constitution via the current mechanism, rather than adopting an entirely new constitution via referendum.
\nBut the passage of recent constitutional reforms by the Legislative Yuan illustrates the continuing volatility of the situation. In addition to replacing the multi-member-district, single-vote electoral system with a single-member-district, two-vote system, the amendment reduces the number of seats in the legislature by half.
\nThe reforms have been lauded as a crucial step towards a more stable two-party system. Similarly, a higher electoral threshold for winning seats should counter vote buying by candidates.
\nFor China, however, the reforms are a smoke screen by Taiwan's government. China fears that the government still wants to write a new constitution -- one from which Taiwanese independence would be derived. This senseless political warfare has hampered cross-strait economic relations. Bilateral trade turnover reached US$50 billion last year, and Taiwanese took almost 4 million trips to China. It is imperative for both economies that direct transport links be established immediately.
\nBut, here, too, political sensitivities loom large. China wants the link defined as domestic in nature, with rights reserved exclusively to airlines registered on either side, while Taiwan insists that services be open to foreign competition.
\nThus does the fight over sovereignty overshadow all bilateral issues. Indeed, with China bent on unification, it refuses even to define relations with Taiwan as "bilateral," while China's growing global influence suggests that Taiwan's diplomatic fortunes are not about to improve.
\nThat, however, may merely strengthen support in Taiwan for independence as the only way out.
\nChien-min Chao is professor of politics at National Chengchi University. He writes extensively on subjects concerning cross-strait relations and Chinese politics.
\n Copyright: Project Syndicate
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