Wed, May 18, 2005 - Page 8 News List

US flails as Hu Jintao gains the upper hand

By Lai I-chung 賴怡忠

The fuss stirred up by the talks that Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) held with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) has finally settled down. However, as the dust clears we can can perceive a major change in the dynamics between China, Taiwan and the US regarding the Taiwan Strait.

Hu has managed to take the upper hand in cross-strait issues from the US. Washington, whose role no longer appears quite as dominant as it was, is now vying with Beijing for influence over Taiwan. In addition, the US' ability to define the nature of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait is beginning to slip.

In the past, the US' dominant role was due in part to its superior military, as well as Taiwan's refusal to bow before Chinese intimidation. As a protector of Taiwan's democratic freedoms, US intervention had a degree of legitimacy.

This has all changed with Lien's and Soong's willingness to engage in talks with Hu. With one swift move, Hu can now meddle in Taiwan's political agenda through the KMT and the PFP, and has gained a degree of legitimacy similar to that of the US through doing so, diluting US dominance as a result.

Hu has also been able to create divisions in public opinion within Taiwan itself.

In point of fact, the US should have paid more attention to these talks and not be suckered into thinking they were a precursor for talks between Hu and President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

The US should have insisted that the process be peaceful and cautioned that its results conform to the wishes of the Taiwanese people. If it had done so, Washington would still have been able to call the shots, define the bottom line, and have some control over how the situation develops.

This lack of understanding caused US statements prior to the visits to be interpreted as a blank check for Lien and Soong to say whatever they wanted in China. The US' emphasis was on paving the way for a meeting between Chen and Hu, but after Lien started making public statements in China, Washington belatedly realized that things were out of control.

Washington's calls for a dialogue between Chen and Hu are now too late. These would simply be regarded as yet another meeting between political parties. The ability of the US to have a decisive influence on the current cross-strait situation has therefore been greatly diminished by Hu's political tactics to sow dissent among political parties in Taiwan.

The pan-green camp's victory in the National Assembly elections has not affected the current political atmosphere. In the absence of strong leadership, the spirit of unified defiance with which Taiwan met the threats of China's missiles in 2000 may now be a thing of the past.

In the face of the recent changes in the relationship between the US, China and Taiwan, we must show ourselves able to take the initiative and define the issues. Hu doesn't need to exert influence indirectly through the US anymore, as he is able to act directly through allies in Taiwan, undermining the US' ability to control the agenda in the Taiwan Strait.

With China and the US competing for influence over Taiwan, it is likely that a pro-China and pro-US camp will emerge in response. This scenario has some similarities to the situation in Lebanon, where there exists a pro-Israel Christian force and a pro-Syria Islamic faction. This will be one of the greatest challenges that Taiwan's democracy has ever faced.

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