Time and Taiwan

March 26, 2004

THE MUDDLED outcome of Taiwan's chaotic exercise in electoral democracy last weekend serves U.S. interests by handing neither the island's independence movement nor China a triumph. The situation remains tense - with street protests and wrangling over how to recount the tight presidential vote - and it could still spin out of control. But if the outcome stands as expected and if China keeps its cool, there's still plenty of room for maintaining the political ambiguity within which Taiwan has thrived. And for the foreseeable future, that's the most critical factor.

It's obviously tempting to laud President Chen Shui-bian's moves toward crystallizing Taiwan's de facto independence from China. The rising aspirations of the Taiwanese for their own place on the world diplomatic stage - to match their economic might - are stirring. Even a Hong Kong-style solution in which China would rule Taiwan as a special region likely wouldn't be acceptable to the island. But first and foremost, the United States must avoid having to send aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait, as in 1996. In this case, America's strategic interest in maintaining regional stability trumps its political values. So U.S. pressure must remain on Mr. Chen to tone down independence moves and on China to show restraint.

To that end, Saturday's vote seems to offer something for all players. China hoped islanders would kick Mr. Chen out of office, but he gained votes and ended up with a majority, not a mere plurality as four years ago. At the same time, his Florida-like margin of victory was just 0.2 percent. And China can preen over Taiwan's show of an immature democracy and over the defeat of two very watered-down referenda that Mr. Chen offered in opposition to the mainland's military threats and on negotiating with Beijing - even though these referenda came not to mean much in the end.

For more than a decade, the thrust of island sentiment - "Taiwan is just Taiwan" - has been clear. But so long as independence crosses the prickly nationalism at the root of the Chinese Communist Party's claim to legitimacy, it risks a disastrous mainland attack. If Mr. Chen remains in office and if his party takes the legislature this fall, he'll likely try to rewrite Taiwan's constitution, again threatening China. The United States must see to it that that process is contained far short of inviting Chinese reaction.

For 30 years - since America first recognized Beijing's claim to "one China" - Taiwan has been stuck in limbo. But in that time, the positions of the island, China and the United States have evolved. A solution remains distant. More time - for more evolution toward flexibility - is needed. The U.S. role is to keep the clock ticking on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

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