Looking behind Ma's 'three noes'

By Ralph Cossa  / 

Mon, Jan 21, 2008 - Page 8

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has proclaimed a "three noes" policy -- no unification, no independence and no use of force -- in outlining his planned approach to cross-strait relations should he win the March 22 presidential election.

This is a clever spin-off of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) long-standing "three noes" -- no Taiwan independence; no "two Chinas" or "one China, one Taiwan" and no Taiwan membership in organizations where statehood is required.

Ma's construct is much more thoughtful and positively oriented. It appears aimed at reassuring four audiences: the people of Taiwan, the PRC, the US and the international community in general.

Ma's first "no" actually reads, in full, "no negotiations for unification during my presidential term[s]." This serves several important purposes. It aims first to reassure those at home who fear that if Ma were elected, he would somehow "hand over Taiwan's sovereignty" to China.

Just as it has proven impossible for President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to unilaterally make Taiwan officially "independent," absent support from the people and legislature, it would be equally impossible for Ma to officially and unilaterally turn Taiwan into a province of the PRC, even if he wanted to. Nonetheless, fears and accusations persist. Hence the domestic importance of the "no unification negotiations" pledge.

This pledge also helps to further temper PRC expectations about what a KMT victory would bring. Most Taiwan-watchers in China expect that regardless of who wins in March, the next Taiwanese president is likely to be less confrontational than Chen. Some may harbor hopes that "reunification" would somehow be in the cards should the KMT prevail.

While being careful not to preclude unification as one possible long-term outcome -- to do so would trigger Beijing's "Anti-Secession" Law -- Ma's message reminds Beijing that talk about unification remains premature. In truth, nothing short of a remarkable complete political transformation in China will ever make unification attractive to the people of Taiwan.

His second pledge, "no pursuit of de jure independence," is aimed first and foremost at Beijing, although the message is equally welcomed in Washington and around the globe.

Moves toward independence, like beauty, are clearly in the eye of the beholder, but many would say that Chen has taken a long (and continuing) series of steps that seem aimed at stretching his own "no independence" pledge to the limit (if not beyond). Both China and the international community would welcome an end to what some interpret as a deliberately provocative game of chicken by Chen's administration.

No one loses much sleep worrying about a Taiwanese attack on China. Clearly, Ma's "no use of force by either side of the Taiwan Strait" is aimed at sending an important message to Beijing: Its current threatening "marry me or I'll kill you" approach has failed to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese and is counterproductive to China's openly professed long-term goal.

Let's be realistic: China will never give an unconditional "no use of force" pledge. Beijing realizes that the primary deterrent to Taiwan moving toward de jure independence is fear of the possible consequences. It is unlikely to give up this important leverage.

But, it is not too much to challenge Beijing, after the Taiwanese presidential election, to make a conditional no use of force pledge; namely, that "as long as the Taiwanese authorities do not take steps toward de jure independence, China will remain completely committed to a peaceful resolution to the cross-strait issue." This is, in fact, consistent with China's stance and also with the "Anti-Secession" Law. It would set a positive tone for the future development of cross-strait relations, especially if accompanied by a freeze or (preferably) reduction in the number of Chinese missiles pointed toward Taiwan. In keeping with the "no use of force" pledge, the new administration in Taipei might also want to give serious consideration to scrapping its own offensive missile program.

Let me end with a bold (although some may say unrealistic or hopelessly naive) suggestion. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) has a clean slate in proclaiming his own list of assurances. Why not state, in the interest of (finally) having a bipartisan cross-strait policy, that he is also willing to endorse and adopt a similar "no reunification, no independence and no use of force" policy?

Such a move would help depoliticize Taiwan's most important and sensitive national security issue. It would help assure Beijing and Washington that the "new" DPP -- now under Hseih's leadership -- is genuinely determined to set a more cooperative course. It would also reinforce the shared DPP/KMT goal of increasing Taiwan's "international breathing space," a goal that some say can only be realistically accomplished with Beijing's acquiescence.

It would limit the impact of the upcoming UN referendum and also help limit Chen's options if he is tempted to try to institutionalize his own more controversial and divisive approach toward cross-strait relations either before the election or during the post-election, pre-May 20 inauguration period.

In short, it would serve Taiwan's, Beijing's and Washington's national security interests and create a long overdue "win, win, win" scenario.

Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.