The Blog

Status Quo in the Strait?

China has a new strategy for influencing Taiwan's elections. And this one seems to be working.

11:00 PM, Dec 15, 2004 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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A COLLECTIVE SIGH OF RELIEF could be heard in Washington last weekend, as returns from the Taiwanese legislative election found President Chen Shui-bian's ruling "Pan Green" coalition gaining less than had been expected--a net of just one seat. Much of President Chen's agenda may well be blocked by the "Pan Blues,"--a coalition more willing to accommodate China--who retained their legislative majority.

The conventional wisdom has it that the rejection of Chen's "radical pro-independence platform" will diminish the odds of a military showdown with China by reining back Taiwan from challenging the status quo. The only problem with this analysis? The challenge to the status quo in East Asia isn't the free exercise of democracy in Taipei; it's the mainland's determination to crush it.

The results of the Taiwanese election--and the American reaction to it--reflect the success of Beijing's recent strategy. Before previous elections in 1996 and 2000, Beijing tried direct military intimidation and rhetorical threats to keep Taiwanese citizens from voting for Chen's "Pan Greens." But that backfired, and Taiwan's pro-China politicians steadily lost ground. Beijing's new strategy is more sophisticated.

Over the last few years Beijing has successfully cast President Chen as a reckless, unpredictable leader, and disloyal ally to the United States--the "Ahmed Chalabi of East Asia." Many decision-makers in Washington have accepted this caricature in the absence of evidence to the contrary: The Bush administration adheres to restrictions on relations with Taiwan drawn up under President Carter that prevent senior officials from meeting with President Chen.

While the mainland presents itself as merely committed to maintaining a peaceful status quo in the Taiwan Straits, Chen is depicted as determined to overturn it, thus provoking war. But this portrait bears little resemblance to reality. President Chen--like his predecessor Lee Teng-hui--believes that Taiwan is already a sovereign, self-governing entity and does not need to declare formal independence. Most Taiwanese agree with him.

Chen may want to declare independence tomorrow, but the fact that Taiwan is a democracy restrains him. Even before the election, Chen understood that winning legislative approval for a declaration of independence is virtually impossible. And formal independence is not popular with the Taiwanese, who do not want a war. President Chen, a skilled politician, is more in touch with the art of the possible in Taiwan than Washington analysts.

Chen also knows that a formal declaration of independence will alienate Washington and thus destroy the island's best guarantee for real independence from Beijing.

Indeed, it is not Taipei but rather China itself that is opposed to the current status quo, which finds a democratic Taiwan on one side of the Strait, free from Chinese control. That is why Beijing is spending a significant portion of its newfound wealth on missiles, submarines, and strike aircraft, and training its soldiers for war against Taiwan. In contrast to Taiwan, Beijing's leadership is not restrained by democratic checks and balances in challenging the status quo.

The American China-watching community is finally beginning to take China's defense buildup across the Taiwan Strait seriously. But with the war on terrorism on the front burner, Washington has chosen to accept Beijing's arguments, laying the blame for tensions at Chen's feet.

IT WAS BY THIS PERVERSE LOGIC that the State Department condemned the possibility of Taipei changing the name of the "China Petroleum" company to "Taiwan Petroleum." They saw this move as a challenge to the status quo, while at the same time managing to ignore Beijing's military build-up.

Washington's assurance to Beijing that it is committed to the decades-old "One China" policy will neither satisfy the mainland nor safeguard Taiwan. Beijing interprets this as a U.S. agreement that Taiwan is part of China. But that is not what Washington really means--and pretending otherwise does nothing to make the situation any safer.

Rather than constantly hectoring Taiwan for challenging the status quo, U.S. policy should instead focus on countering Beijing's attempts to shift the balance of military power in the Strait. If Beijing wants Taiwan to be part of China, it must convince the Taiwanese to join in a union with it. The Taiwanese are not going to give up their political freedom voluntarily, and when push comes to shove, the United States will not allow Taiwan to be coerced. Meanwhile, we should not be encouraging the Chinese to believe that we back them on their "reunification" plans. That is the road to war.

Daniel Blumenthal is a resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and, until recently, was the senior country director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.