US policy stuck as China's changes

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎  / 

Wed, Nov 09, 2005 - Page 8

One scenario many China watchers now see is that Beijing has shifted policy regarding Taiwan, placing a priority on preventing Taiwan's independence in the immediate future, while continuing to insist on eventual unification. This places it in a position equivalent to the platform of Taiwan's opposition parties.

For China, this in effect sets aside the issue of absorbing Taiwan while it works to establish an equal, or even better a dominant, position in the region. If this is so, what might be the impact of the relationship between the three cross-strait players -- the US, China and Taiwan?

China is already actively conducting a vigorous effort to strengthen its connection with the pan-blue opposition leaders. It encourages visits by them to China and the strengthening of trade and investment exchanges. It is also helping opposition politicians gain votes at home by aiding Taiwanese businesspeople in China, or taishang, expanding cultural activities to demonstrate Taiwan's Chineseness and liberalizing rules for Taiwanese businesses in China.

At the same time, it is using its influence to expand efforts to isolate Taiwan from the international community and demonstrating its ability to block Taiwan's independence by expanding its military capability.

China has also shifted its policy regarding the US by establishing better relations with countries that surround China (minus Japan), which will help strengthen Beijing's hand to deal with the US on regional matters on an equal basis. All of these regional nations likely already accept the idea of not supporting Taiwan's independence. The next step for China would be gain their support for unification.

As for Beijing's relations with the US, China sees it as necessary to play by the rules of globalization in order to carry out its vital economic expansion and soften its relationship with Washington, at least in the short term. It needs to do that to establishes its position in the region and gain support for unification. (Already in a conservative magazine in Washington, there has been a call to make room for China in the region, and to support a version of "one country, two systems" to settle the cross-strait issue).

In Taiwan at the moment, change is taking place in a far different way. The administration in Taipei, though it has been on a bumpy and often unclear path, was nonetheless steering Taiwan in the direction of strengthening democracy and aggressively pursuing a separate identity. By last year, much had been done, but much more had still to be done.

The victory by the ruling party last year was gained despite an all-out effort by the still powerful opposition and an unwelcome US intervention. The inability of the ruling party to win a majority in the Legislative Yuan in the following election a few months later, however, checked the momentum and has possibly moved it in a different direction.

China risked becoming a catalyst for Taiwan's ruling party to regain momentum when it passed the "Anti-Secession" Law, but the opposition parties -- in particular the KMT with its greater abundance of experienced personnel, its influence in the media and its access to significant funds -- moved to check that possibility. The opposition parties, which have flirted with China over the past four years and which continue to dominate the Legislative Yuan, shifted into high gear to gain the initiative.

As a result, governance seems to have come almost to a standstill, while politics flourishes. The two sides -- the pan-green and the pan-blue -- are playing by different rules. The pan-blue side's objective is to regain power to assure eventual unification with China, while at the same time opening the gates for China's entry into Taiwan.

The pan-green side's objective is to assure democracy is strengthened. But it seems to be placing a greater priority on stability as a defense against its opponents rather than defending the freedom that is being challenged by the opposition's behavior. Both sides may lose.

These changes in the policies and actions of China and Taiwan have not influenced the US' policies toward either one -- yet. Washington's preoccupation with domestic and other external issues has absorbed the attention of top decision makers. That does not mean that other issues are being ignored by the bureaucracy. More likely, decisions are being postponed by senior officials who are preoccupied with the crisis of the day, or awaiting policy personnel that have not yet been chosen.

Even when an issue is addressed -- cross-strait issues as well as others -- a decision may be stalled by a lack of consensus (or interagency approval in foreign service jargon). Differences are inherent in some agencies and branches of government: Forging a consensus among foreign affairs, security and Congress inevitably requires very difficult concessions. Political realities, security requirements and national values clearly form part of cross-strait policy.

But for Taiwan, danger lingers over the changes being made by China, and potentially by changes the US may make in the future when decisions cannot be avoided.

It remains unclear what pressures will develop in the US-China relationship, how well and in what direction Beijing will manage its changing environment and whose consensus will prevail in Taiwan. An important question though is are opportunities for furthering Taiwan's future being lost in its internal struggles?

Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and is now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.