Tue, May 23, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan could end up in big trouble

By Sushil Seth

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is apparently relishing his popularity both at home and abroad. He received good press when he passed through Sydney. One Australian journalist described him as "the attractive and talented mayor of Taipei" and the "latest scion" of the old KMT.

The reason for his popularity is that he promises that if he were elected the next president of Taiwan, he would be a miracle worker when dealing with China. He would somehow make China accept an ambiguous formula by which Taiwan could both be independent and a part of China at the same time.

Ma believes, as reported in Sydney Morning Herald, that as long as tribute is paid to the "one China" principle -- under a 1992 formula given to different interpretations -- Taiwan and China could work out a lasting modus vivendi.

The trouble, though, is that for China there is no ambiguity in the 1992 formula: Their view is that Taiwan is an integral part of China. Therefore, from Beijing's viewpoint, any discussion about Taiwan is limited to the amount of autonomy it would be given after it unifies with China. In other words, Taiwan could be another Hong Kong, with some minor variations.

China does not like President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), but Chen's power appears to be declining by the day. In any case, he will only be in office until 2008 and so far, it looks like his Democratic Progressive Party is unlikely to recover much ground before then.

But Beijing senses danger in the remaining two years of Chen's presidency, as he could do something spectacular to change the "status quo" with a view to recovering political ground. Which might force China to react forcefully, and bring about confrontation between it and the US.

Indeed, this is also Washington's nightmare. If Chen were to declare independence for Taiwan, or make moves seen by China as tantamount to such a declaration, this could lead to war. As US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick reportedly said, "Independence means war. And that means American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines."

In its present state of military overstretch in Iraq and elsewhere, the US is in no mood for any confrontation with China.

It must be stated, however, that it wouldn't shirk its responsibilities under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 to help Taiwan defend itself in case it was attacked by China. When asked recently at the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington if the Bush administration would react the way former president Bill Clinton did during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis by sending two aircraft carriers, Peter Rodman, US Assistant Secretary of Defense, reportedly said, "While the precise response may not be the same, our ability and our will to meet our security commitments remain firm."

That said, Washington is apprehensive that Chen might drag them into a crisis with China. On this point there is a convergence of sorts between China and the US. Both are watchful of Chen and consider him unpredictable.

That would explain Ma's relative appeal in Washington, and Beijing's love affair with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

Ma's conciliatory approach to China -- with the promise a formula that would satisfy both sides could be worked out -- has considerable appeal. In other words, Taiwan could retain its effective sovereignty without challenging the "one China" principle.

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