An odd solution to Taiwan issue


Statehood: A self-style visionary looks to United States for a novel answer to the thorny question of what to do about Taiwan

March 16, 2000|By Frank Langfitt

TAIPEI - The "Taiwan Question" has stumped diplomats for decades and occasionally threatened to draw China and the United States into war. But David Chou, a self-styled visionary in red suspenders, thinks he has found the answer: Make Taiwan the 51st American state.

The notion draws befuddled stares from many Taiwanese and would drive Beijing nuts. But Chou has thought it through and is dying to explain his idea to anyone who will listen. It's an ideal marriage, says the wiry 50-year-old, who brings a mix of evangelistic enthusiasm and impishness to his bold proposal.

Taiwan would receive guaranteed military protection from China, an unwanted suitor which has issued a "marry-me-or-die" reunification ultimatum. The United States would absorb the world's 19th most prosperous economy and an enviable piece of real estate with which it could frustrate China's rising ambitions.

"If we can solve Taiwan's problem and America's problem, this is the perfect solution," says Chou, looking a bit owlish behind his round glasses.

As Taiwanese head to the polls Saturday to select their next president in a tight, three-way race, Beijing's presence looms large. China has viewed Taiwan as a rebel province since Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist troops fled here in 1949 toward the end of the Chinese Civil War.

In recent weeks, Beijing has turned up the heat, saying it will attack the island if Taiwanese leaders continue to put off reunification talks. The People's Liberation Army has also warned voters against electing Chen Shui-bian, nominee of the Democratic Progressive Party, which supports independence from China.

In the tense atmosphere that often surrounds cross-strait politics, Chou's solution is a refreshingly novel proposal, but highly unlikely. It would require a national referendum, Chou says - and the U.S. Seventh Fleet's readiness to intervene.

To push his plan, he and a small brain trust have formed a series of organizations to raise awareness andfunds, and to develop popular support for statehood. The groups have names like "The 51st Club," and "FormUSA Foundation," a pun on "Formosa," the name Portuguese sailors gave the island when they arrived here in the 16th century. The total number of members, Chou acknowledges, is under 200.

Polls show that the largest sector of Taiwanese opinion prefers to maintain the status quo, rather than unite with authoritarian China or declare formal independence, which would mean almost certain war. If Taiwan cannot keep the status quo forever, though, Chou believes most here would rather join the United States than the mainland.

The attractions, he says, are obvious.

The countries have had close ties since the U.S. backed Chiang Kai-shek against Mao Tse-tung's Communists beginning in the 1920s. Many Taiwanese have studied in the United States; many of the island's upper class hold U.S. passports. And, if you ignore the signs with Chinese characters, the urban landscape of Taipei looks a lot more like Los Angeles than Beijing.

But what of Taiwan's rich Chinese culture and growing sense of national identity?

No worries, says David Shu, a core 51st Club member who holds a degree in architecture from the University of Houston. Shu, 35, says he realized during a visit to American Samoa in 1988 that Taiwanese could maintain their way of life under U.S. sovereignty. In Samoa, the local population was able to keep its own language, dress and customs while enjoying the benefits of American protection.

There is, of course, a downside to Chou's proposal. If Taiwan held a plebiscite on joining the United States, China would almost certainly respond with a missile attack regardless of how people voted.

Chou figures such an attack would work to his advantage. Look at history, he says.

When China launched missiles toward Taiwan's shores during the 1996 presidential election, Taiwanese rallied around the intended political target, incumbent President Lee Teng-hui.

"When China fires missiles, our support will go up," Chou says matter-of-factly. "Actually, the Beijing government is a big help to us."

Chou is also counting on U.S. aircraft carriers to come to the island's defense as they did during the election campaign four years ago.

The 51st Club has commissioned a professional poll which shows that under certain circumstances as many as 46 percent of Taiwanese would support joining the United States. Chou contends that as support continues to grow, the U.S. will warm to the idea and send warships to defend the nation during a referendum.

The support Chou found in the survey does not show up in random interviews around the island. When asked about the idea, Huang Tai-hsiung, a 20-year-old college student from the southern port city of Kaohsiung, dismisses it as absurd.

"We have our pride," he says.

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