A new ball game for Taiwan

Asia Times

BEIJING - Last week the Voice of America (VOA), a media outfit directly funded by Washington, reported that the Bush administration may be unable to deliver on its promise to sell eight diesel-powered submarines to Taiwan.

The radio quoted unidentified Pentagon officials and said that the main obstacle to the plan lay in the fact that the United States has not built this kind of submarine since the 1950s and major conventional submarine builders, in Germany and the Netherlands, declined to cooperate for fear of offending Beijing. Moreover, if the US contractors were to develop design and manufacturing technologies on their own, the cost may be exorbitantly high, far exceeding the present Taiwan procurement plan, said the VOA.

The submarines were at the core of the major arms sales package the US announced in April to boost Taiwan's defense against possible threats from the mainland. Yet even then it was known that the submarines might never be delivered. The reasons the VOA cites now were known before, but the US administration clearly wanted to send a political message to Beijing in support of Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian.

To the US, Beijing's rearmament plans are responsible for the tension in the Taiwan Strait, and the arms sales expressed the point that to bring back peace and stability in the region the US had to beef up Taiwan's defense against the mainland. The present message thus appears to be equally political, but of opposite value to that of April.

Last week Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan argued in an interview he gave Asia Times Online [China breaks it silence, Nov 28] that the tension in the region was not created by Beijing but by Taipei. Tang didn't mention China's traditional promise of resorting to force to bring about reunification in case of Taipei's unilateral declaration of independence, but laid all the blame for the tension squarely on Taiwan.

"They [Taiwan authorities] stage separatist demonstrations at the international level, they purchase advanced weapons from foreign countries, they boast about foreign support, and in such a way they greatly strain relations across the Strait to the point of harming stability and peace in the Asian region," said Tang. "The position of the Chinese government in solving the Taiwan question is clear and reasonable. We hope that the Taiwan authorities will soon go back to the 'one China' principle. Subject to the acceptance of that principle, dialogue and negotiations can be resumed and any other matters can thus be discussed."

In sum, Tang turned around the conventional argument that Beijing's rearmament and plans to reunify with the island cause an escalation of tension in the region, and the US, with its VOA report on the submarines, appeared to open a line of credit for Beijing. In other words, there is mounting pressure both from Beijing and also indirectly from Washington on the Taiwan authorities to accept the one-China principle. This principle, after all, was never renounced by Taiwan's previous Kuomintang (KMT) government and yet it did not cause the forfeit of Taiwan's de facto independence.

So there is a new, quiet but persistent coming-together of China and the US on the issue of Taiwan: China renounced the use of open threats and said the threats come from Taiwan, and the US scaled down its rhetoric on arms sales.

This takes place on the backdrop of a larger drama unfolding thousands of miles away from the South China Sea. In Afghanistan, in fact, China and United States have similar agendas on the future of Central Asia. Despite some persistent Chinese worries about the growing US presence in Afghanistan, both Beijing and Washington are extremely concerned about the stability of Pakistan, while other important actors appear to be more cavalier about the future of this country.

China and the US are, in fact, in favor of keeping a future Afghanistan united and with a large representation of all the different minorities. They are well aware that a drastically diminished role for the Pashtuns, the larger ethnic group in the country, would further confuse the political setting in Pakistan, which has been for the past 20 years a Pashtun backwater and where large sector of society feel extremely close to the Afghan cause.

Other countries such as Russia, Iran and even India, for different reasons, would not be against a partition of Afghanistan. The political reasons for that are the long-standing difficulties of holding scores of ethnic minorities together and developing a stable country out of this motley and restive mix. The splitting of Afghanistan is a reality, they argue, and it would be better faced squarely.

There are also geopolitical issues at stake. For Russia and Iran, a partition of Afghanistan would mean the securing of, respectively, their southern and northern borders, while in India some forces contend that Pakistan is some kind of rogue country because of its support for terrorists both in Afghanistan and Kashmir. These forces would not be at all contrary to a destabilization of Pakistan, which China and the US would see as a nightmare.

That is not to say that India or Russia or Iran is working for the destabilization of Pakistan. The main forces in all these countries are very clear that the present conflict in Afghanistan must be confined and not expanded, and that a failure to bring order there would plunge the region into further troubles, which would surely spill over, once again, as far as to New York.

But certainly the divided pull in Russia, Iran and India make it even more necessary for US and China to stick together, as they clearly have at heart the Pakistani cause. This is also why former senior US officials such as Zbiginiew Brzsinski and Henry Kissinger have maintained in recent months the need for closer coordination with China.

From the Chinese point of view, there are no massive ambitions in Afghanistan or Central Asia, but there is a fear of a future complete encirclement, with US presence both in the west and in the east, ie, in Taiwan. This created the conditions for Tang's new position and for the ensuing US statement on the submarines.

On the Taiwan side, the authorities are now in a completely different ball game. Before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, a senior Taiwanese official, Li Xinying, wrote on "Heartland" about the necessity for a new role for Taiwan (see accompanying story), not squeezed between the different contentions of China and the US. However, what is this role at the moment, after the attack? Possibly, as the US seems eager to blaze new ground with China, the recognition of the one-China principle and the start of all-around far-reaching discussions with Beijing could give Taipei this new role now. Conversely, in Taiwan a stubborn defense of positions, now made untenable or difficult by the present flow of events, would reduce Taiwan's bargaining chips with the mainland, not increase them.

In fact, with the ongoing economic crisis and a hefty trade surplus with the mainland of some US$10 billion, Taiwan is by all accounts under Beijing's thumb. Taipei is forced to give up day after day its restrictions on direct trade with the mainland without getting any political return from Beijing. From a strictly cynical point of view it would be better for Beijing to wait and let the Taiwan apple fall. But China's leaders will be keen on starting discussions before next year's party congress - they could thus pass into history as the ones who completed the reunification of China by bringing back Taiwan.

But if Taipei doesn't accept the one-China principle in the next few months, Beijing's authorities might lose interest in talking to Taipei and just wait for Taiwan's economy to get completely integrated into China's. In fact, as the Afghanistan and terrorist issues could go on for years, with the US thus increasingly leaning on China on those issues, it is extremely difficult to see a U-turn in US policies on Taiwan in the next few years. By then China would no longer need to talk with Taiwan but could simply dictate the reunification terms, something that might not be in the interest of Taiwan's authorities at the time.

All these plans would have been wonderfully bolstered by a resounding defeat of Chen Shui-bian in the parliamentary elections this weekend, but in fact he won. He got 87 seats, up from 66. This and the sounding defeat of the KMT, which plunged to 68 seats from the previous 110, projected Chen to a relative majority in the 225-seat parliament. But to the anti-unification account should be added the 13 seats, up from one, of former president Lee Teng-hui.

The result does not change the cold political calculation, but a possible growth of anti-unification feelings would complicate very much all reunification moves and could well push the island toward tension and instability. In fact as anti-unification forces grow, so do more cautious forces. James Soong's People First Party more than doubled its seats from 20 to 46, while the KMT still holds 68 seats. Taiwan's internal opinion appears split roughly in the middle along increasingly polarized lines, and the question is, what can Chen really do to be a leader of all Taiwanese people? Can he hold out against Beijing without risking the break-up of his island, and how can he get the best from Beijing? (2001-12-05 Asia Times)


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