Mon, Jan 17, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Painting a realistic portrait

The Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company to The Economist magazine can only be regarded as a reliable weathervane on Taiwan's affairs if, as a result of its predictions, one expects the exact opposite to actually happen -- as it almost invariably does. The Economist itself, however, tends to say less about Taiwan but show a little more sagacity when it does -- it was for example almost the only international news publication to point out prior to the Dec. 11 legislative elections that President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) campaign didn't make sense.

This week's magazine, which contains a 10-page survey on Taiwan and its relations with China, has, therefore, to be read with interest -- not least because it is seven years since the last such extended treatment. Also of interest is that the survey is penned by the magazine's Beijing correspondent, James Miles. While ordinarily The Economist does not byline its articles, it is a safe assumption that the majority of its China coverage comes from Miles. From these shores, that coverage seems at times to be almost ludicrously optimistic about the kind of society China might become and not nearly attentive enough either to China's current nastiness or to the massive obstacles in the way of progress. Given the magazine's throw-weight in the corridors of power, this week's offering could only be opened with some trepidation.

The result is an argument that, frankly, more people need to take serious note of.

That, of all international security dangers, nowhere risks a regional great-power conflict like the Taiwan Strait is convincingly pointed out. But this is unlikely to happen. Since Taiwan is vital to China's economy and the economy is vital to the continuing rule of the communist party, Beijing is not going to shoot the goose that lays golden eggs. How then is China's bellicosity to be explained? As an attempt, it is suggested, to stop Taiwan from taking measures that would force China to act. For domestic political reasons, no Chinese leader can survive who appears weak on Taiwan. But the current leadership almost certainly doesn't want to really get tough with Taiwan. So what they aim to achieve is to deter Taiwan from taking any action which would put pressure on them to get tough and which might, therefore, reveal their weakness.

It's an interesting analysis, made all the more plausible by that rare thing in the international media, a fair and understanding look at Taiwanese nationalism. It is, however, a pity that nothing is said about the anti-secession law, which really needs to be put in context -- does Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) feel, perhaps, it has been forced upon him as a response to Taiwan's own referendum law? Miles is excellently placed to find out such a thing. And some of the suggestions for rapprochement mentioned are decidedly dodgy -- Kenneth Leiberthal's interim agreement idea is not simply a 30-year "truce" but is predicated on a future date being set for unification talks, something unacceptable in Taiwan.

In the end, however, the survey gets it right. "Ultimately, China will have to come to terms with Tai-wan's permanent separation. The most it can ever realistically hope for -- even if a liberal democracy were to take root on the mainland -- is an arrangement along the lines of the European Union that preserves separate sovereignties. Taiwan would not want to get any closer."

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