Tue, Nov 15, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan's national identity in crisis

By Sushil Seth

It would seem that Taiwan is going through an acute identity crisis. Which is to say that there are multiple voices about how best to relate to China. Beijing, on the other hand, knows what it wants. It wants to annex Taiwan.

As for Taiwan, its people would ideally like to be left alone to run their own country. That has been the position of the ruling party, though it has shifted its position slightly to avoid provoking China through an outright declaration of independence. Beijing has let it be known over the years that any declaration of Taiwan's independence will not be tolerated and will lead to a Chinese invasion. Most Taiwanese, it would seem, do not want this to happen.

Whether or not China will attack is another matter. The point is that even the US is against Taiwan making a formal declaration of independence. While Washington is committed to help defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, they don't want Taipei to provide Beijing with an excuse for this. Washington formally subscribes to the "one China" principle, but not if it is achieved with a Chinese military invasion.

China doesn't seem to have any immediate plan to attack Taiwan. Beijing is, however, keeping up the pressure through deployment of an increasing number of missiles targeted at Taiwan and by building up its military machine. There is no immediate compulsion to attack because things are working out quite well for them through a combination of factors.

The US preoccupation with Iraq and global terrorism has given Beijing much political leeway to destabilize Taiwan. Even though Washington is becoming aware of losing political ground to China, particularly in Asia, it remains too distracted. Besides, it still hasn't made up its mind about how best to deal with China. As US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent China visit showed, Washington is urging China to become a responsible member of the global community by being open and transparent -- militarily, politically and economically.

Washington, though, is not too optimistic on this score. For instance, its re-energized defense relationship with Japan, including a decision to base a nuclear-powered warship in Japanese waters, is primarily intended to deal with future threats from China and North Korea.

Rumsfeld didn't mince words during his visit, saying that "China ... is expanding its missile forces and enabling those forces to reach many areas of the world well beyond the Pacific region." No wonder Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda "believes that the continued presence of the US Navy will contribute to safety and stability in Japan, the Far East and the world."

Last month, the two countries endorsed a document entitled the "US-Japan Alliance: Transformation and Realignment for the Future," laying out a more interactive defense relationship, with Japan increasingly playing a bigger role. The document emphasized close coordination at every level "to dissuade destabilizing military build-ups, to deter aggression and to respond to diverse security challenges." In other words, Washington is not going anywhere. If anything, it has plans to become more entrenched in the Asia-Pacific.

But preoccupied and over-stretched as the US is in the Middle East and Afghanistan, it would rather have China on its side politically than be subverted by it on issues like Iraq and terrorism. New political and strategic compulsions softened US President George W. Bush's earlier bold declaration that the US would do whatever it took to defend Taiwan. It hasn't been repeated with the same vigor.

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