Taiwan's status quo

December 15, 2004

IN TAIWAN'S legislative elections last weekend, the island's voters handed their president a setback, Beijing's saber-rattlers a victory, and a caught-in-the-middle United States at least a temporary reprieve from escalating cross-strait tensions.

Having earlier this year voted their pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian a second term, Taiwanese voters had been expected to accord his Democratic Progressive Party a parliamentary majority.

And Mr. Chen then was expected to proceed toward attempting to rewrite the Republic of China's constitution and perhaps even the island's political name to reflect in law its growing de facto independence from China -- potential moves prompting increasingly credible military threats from Beijing.

But island voters -- their economy thoroughly invested in the mainland, where almost a million Taiwanese now live and work -- chose the path of caution, electing a majority of opposition legislators who do not favor boldly asserting the island's sovereignty.

Unfortunately, this choice likely is being received by Chinese leaders as a successful result of their 700 missiles trained on the island. Nevertheless, the continuation of Taiwan's divided government -- and of limits on Mr. Chen's ability to push the envelope on independence -- means that the United States in the short term will less likely be drawn into the middle of a no-win military conflict between China and Taiwan.

That could still happen, of course, but for now Taiwanese voters have reinforced the island's gray-hued status quo, not changed it, and that suits just fine an equally gray-hued U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity on the question of Taiwan's status.

Given the powerful development of a full-scale democracy in Taiwan -- in contrast to the authoritarian regime still parked in Beijing -- it's exceedingly tempting to back Mr. Chen's movement toward island independence. The United States' sympathies certainly run along those lines but its foreign policy cannot, given not only China's regional military strength but also U.S. reliance on Beijing on such critical issues as defusing North Korea's nuclear threat.

The irony here is that the legislative elections may have been decided more on municipal than on national issues.

Still, any step that may cool down this potential flashpoint and buys time is in U.S. interests.

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