Sustaining lie

August 08, 2002

TAIWAN, STRIKINGLY wealthy and the Chinese world's first democracy, continues to be vexed on the world stage by mainland China -- the only China recognized by major powers. Taipei's goal of negotiating as equals with Beijing a resolution of their half-century conflict is stalled. China's recent shift from threatening the island to luring its business is paying big dividends, drawing billions in investment to the mainland and fostering greater economic allegiance on the island.

Against that frustration comes Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's inflammatory remarks last weekend in which he dared to speak the officially unspeakable: Taiwan and China are separate countries -- and the island should hold a referendum on independence. This historical truth violates the one-China myth at the core of Taiwan's existence and Sino-U.S. relations. Predictably, regional stocks fell; China threatened a "disaster" and its press ran photos of military exercises; U.S. officials were left sputtering.

Taiwanese officials immediately backpedaled, parsing Mr. Chen's words so they somehow didn't contradict the island's formal policy of not seeking independence. Even so, this was a potentially dangerous tactic inevitably involving the United States, which has pledged to protect the island from mainland attack. It also may have been a miscalculation.

Mr. Chen may have been seeking to shore up support at home, but China's charm offensive and Taiwan's relaxing of controls have prompted growing mainland investment and business pressure for greater integration. Most Taiwanese prefer the financial benefits of the status quo to the military risks of independence.

The island's president also may have been displaying resolve to China's leaders, while they're reportedly struggling to hash out conflicts over what was to be a smooth top leadership succession plan this fall. Jiang Zemin, head of China's government, military and Communist Party, now may keep at least his military role -- underscoring that this might not be the best time to test Beijing's hawks.

Last but not least, Mr. Chen may have been trying to build on a notable rise in Washington's pro-Taipei sentiment. Beyond new arm sales to the island, the Bush administration has been forging stronger military links. Two recent reports, from the Pentagon and Congress, have described a Chinese high-tech military buildup aimed at Taiwan and ultimately America -- one enabled by the huge U.S. trade surplus with China and American investments and technology transfers there. But that doesn't mean Washington is ready in the name of national security to reverse two decades of "constructive engagement" by constraining economic relations with China.

Fortunately for the United States, the mainland's reaction so far has been relatively restrained and has not led, as in 1999 and 2000, to coastal missile drills. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is to swing through Taipei and Beijing later this month, and President Jiang is to visit President Bush's Texas ranch in October. Once again in the Taiwan Strait, U.S. interests are in sustaining the island's relatively high levels of internal democracy and external economic freedom by falling back on the comfort of the vital lie of one China.

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