`One China:' No chance

April 12, 2004|By Richard Halloran

NO MATTER how the dispute over Taiwan's presidential election is resolved, it has become ever more clear that the "One China" principle is unraveling.

The concept of "One China" is coming apart because most Taiwanese have rejected it, the Chinese are rigid in insisting on it and the Bush administration vacillates on applying it. Many other nations are ambivalent and have ambiguous policies derived from it.

Perhaps most of all, the idea of "One China" is dying because few agree on what it means today. Beijing says "One China" means Taiwan belongs to China. The United States says the question of Taiwan's sovereignty is unsettled. Japan, which ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, has renounced claim to the island but takes no position on its sovereignty.

In sum, the "One China" that has dominated Asian international relations for 30 years as the centerpiece of Beijing's foreign policy and a mainstay in the foreign policies of the United States and many nations in Asia and Europe is increasingly being seen as little more than an expedient fiction.

Taiwan's March 20 election showed that only a few Taiwanese are clinging to "One China." Half of the voters favored the independence sought by the incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian. His opponents have challenged his razor-thin, 50.1 percent victory. Even if that vote is overturned, it will still have shown strong support for President Chen.

The other half who voted for Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, are further divided among those who favor the status quo of separation from mainland China without formal independence, those who are undecided and a small percentage who believe in "One China" and want Taiwan to join the People's Republic of China.

This is a marked shift. Before the election, polls showed that one-third of the Taiwanese favored independence, while another third contended that the status quo was the safest choice. Some scholars have estimated that 75 to 80 percent of the voters would opt for independence if an avowed military threat from China disappeared.

President Chen, in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., went further: "Taiwan is one country and the other side [China] is another country and neither side exercises jurisdiction over the other, and I think this important consensus has been reached during this election."

The Bush administration, which says it has a "One China" policy, nonetheless took the initiative in issuing a statement congratulating the voters in Taiwan "on the successful conclusion" of their election. Further, the White House said, "we congratulate Mr. Chen on his victory."

Beijing quickly saw that statement for what it was: U.S. recognition that President Chen and his government are the legitimate, elected governors of Taiwan. The Chinese denounced Washington's "incorrect act" and accused the United States of violating the "One China" principle and "interfering in China's internal affairs."

Around President Bush, advisers who call themselves the Vulcans, after the Roman god of fire, have been skeptical of policies they thought favored China. They scorn the "One China" doctrine except for statements intended, for instance, to persuade Beijing to support the war on terror.

The Vulcans, according to a new book by James Mann, a longtime correspondent in China and Washington, include Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

American conservatives, such as those associated with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, have begun more vigorously to question the "One China" concept. They have argued for recognizing the government of Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations instead of the present unofficial ties.

More support for normal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has come from members of Congress. Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., said recently that if the people of Taiwan rejected integration into China, "then we should recognize Taiwan as a free and independent state."

Similarly, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, contended: "It may be impolite to say so, but `one China' is a fiction - and a dangerous fiction - that most of the international community has bought into in order to mollify China."

Perhaps the starkest assessment has come from the International Crisis Group of independent, nonprofit researchers. It has published reports it said have "demonstrated that for all practical purposes, the `One China' approach that has helped stabilize the region for three decades is dead."

Richard Halloran is a journalist and expert on Asian and U.S. military affairs. He is based in Honolulu.

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