Tue, Nov 13, 2007 - Page 8 News List

How valid is China's smugness?

By Sushil Seth

Taiwan is in a quandary. China is watching like a hawk to prevent it from flapping its wings internationally by, for instance, seeking membership of the UN. And the US is not helping as it doesn't want to offend China. The US is not keen on Taiwan even holding a referendum to elicit the views of its people about UN membership.

China, on the other hand, is steadfast in regarding Taiwan as its territory.

Therefore, any forward movement in the Beijing-Taipei relationship has to be within this parameter. This was made clear by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) during the recently concluded 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress.

He offered to hold peace talks with Taiwan but on the basis of the "one China" principle.

The sharpest reaction to Hu's offer came from President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who told an interviewer: "Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country; Taiwan is not part of China, nor is Taiwan a local government of the People's Republic of China."

Unlike Chen, whose position on Taiwan's independent status is blunt, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), agrees in principle with the "one China" principle, but would like more leeway to interpret it, with some input about its future by the people of Taiwan.

Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), is more circumspect. He is not against a peace agreement with China -- but peace cannot be on Beijing's terms. His circumspection reflects divisions in the ruling party with an eye to presidential election.

It would appear that both Ma and Frank (in their different ways) want to maintain some creative ambiguity in any future talks with Beijing.

But China is not for ambiguity. For the present, though, Beijing is keen for Chen to go.

In any case, Beijing seems to believe that time is on its side as far as Taiwan is concerned. And there are reasons for this, as they see it.

First, Taiwan's fractious politics gives Beijing space to subvert its political processes to its advantage. Beijing has worked hard on this by cultivating the KMT leadership.

Second, Taiwan's businesses and its executives are lured by China's large market. This is not only diverting capital and expertise to China but also creating a powerful constituency sympathetic to the China connection. It is reported that Taiwanese investments in China may be as high as US$280 billion.

China is encouraged by its success in isolating Taiwan. Beijing increasingly believes that with through its growing international clout, Taiwan would be even more isolated. This increases internal and external pressure on Taiwan for accommodation with China.

Fourth, with the US over-stretched in the Middle East and its internal politics in an election mode, China has come to acquire important leverage over Washington in international politics.

The US has depended on Beijing to facilitate a deal with North Korea on Pyongyang's nuclear program and is keen to enlist its help against Iran.

Under these circumstances, the US is not keen on complicating its relations with Beijing on the Taiwan question. Hence, Taipei is being pressured into not "annoying" or "provoking" China by promoting initiatives like a referendum on UN membership.

The US pressure on Taiwan would seem to reinforce China's confidence that time is on its side.

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