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.
Similarly, Bush's not-so-subtle rebuke urging President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) not to alter the political status quo in Taiwan (and thus desist from declaring independence) was also dictated by the realities of the new situation.
But the US commitment to defend Taiwan is pretty firm, even though Washington is not happy at the stalled sale of a US$15 billion package of US weaponry due to internal political wrangling in Taiwan. Rumsfeld made it clear at a Washington press conference in August that as a "sovereign nation" it was up to Taiwan to decide whether or not to buy the weapons. He emphasized that this would not alter the US' legal commitment to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
A Chinese attack doesn't seem imminent for three reasons. First, as things are today there is no danger of Taiwan declaring independence. Therefore, China is not under any compulsion to act rashly. Second, the US' commitment to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack is quite unambiguous. And Beijing is not yet ready to take on the US with all the disastrous consequences for its economic development and superpower ambitions. Third, Taiwan's fractious political landscape is alluring to China, which can manipulate it to its advantage.
It would seem that Taiwan's opposition parties, particularly the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), are on the same wave length as Beijing, favoring unification. The small difference, if any, might be about the timing of unification and the degree of Taiwan's autonomy. Taiwan's business class also, by and large, favors this course, eyeing the cheap and tame labor in China and its large internal market. And Beijing keeps dangling extra allurements to consolidate and expand its constituency.
When Taiwan's political class is so badly divided and the business class is largely dictated by greed, China doesn't need to fume and fret.
It would appear that there is a feeling in some circles in Taiwan that the US will not let China annex Taiwan because of its own strategic requirements. It would set the stage for China's further expansion into the region and the consequent erosion of US power.
The point, though, is that with Taiwan politically divided, the US will be severely handicapped in its task. Therefore, it is vitally important for Taiwan's political class to create a national consensus on identity. Without it, they are extremely vulnerable to Chinese machinations.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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