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Panda Diplomacy

Taiwan should be wary of Beijing's friendly overtures.

12:00 AM, Jun 18, 2009 • By MICHAEL MAZZA
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If Taiwan finds itself in a position of weakness relative to China at a time when the United States has also downgraded its Pacific Forces, its developing relationship with Beijing may cease to be mutually beneficial. If the United States cannot defend Taiwan, and if Taiwan cannot adequately defend itself, the island will be much more susceptible to coercion from the Mainland. China may use coercive means to bring Taiwan increasingly into a sphere of influence, slowly working towards its goal of eventual unification. Moreover, in this scenario, China will be more tempted to use force to settle the issue, as it need not fear an effective defense from Taiwan's military or an effective international intervention.

None of this is to say that President Ma should halt diplomatic efforts at improving ties with China. On the contrary, recent developments have benefited Taiwan and the Mainland alike, and should continue. But it is important--for decision-makers in both Taiwan and the United States--to keep China's motives in mind. Taipei should continue on its present course for as long as its dealings with Beijing are in Taiwan's interests. But it is also important for Taiwan to maintain a strong defense so that it can negotiate with China from a position of strength; the United States must do the same in order to deter China from ever using force against the island.

Taiwan's entrance into the WHO--even though only partial and under the moniker "Chinese Taipei"--is an important step both for Taiwan and for Beijing. It offers hope that Beijing may be adopting a more reasonable policy towards Taiwan, and that Taiwan might pursue increasingly normal relations with other states in the years ahead. With luck, that is the case. But until China ends its constant, if at times muted, military threat to the island and sets aside its revanchist ambitions, Taipei and Washington must remain vigilant in defending the people of Taiwan.

Michael Mazza is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.