Taiwan to tweak Beijing dragon's tail?

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By John Metzler

Thursday, December 11, 2003

UNITED NATIONS — I’m certain that there must be an old Chinese folk tale “about the boy who tweaked the dragon’s tail.” Such a saga of foolish bravado would be prefaced by stories of this strong and impetuous youth whose vainglorious indiscretion brought about his tragic end, or something like that. In modern times a prosperous and democratic Chinese island called Taiwan, appears ready to play the role of pulling the Beijing dragon’s tail. In doing so it endangers its own existence and threatens to possibly drag the USA into a political whirlpool.

During the recent visit of People’s Republic of China (PRC) Premier Wen Jiabiao to the USA, the long-simmering issue of Taiwan’s status has shadowed otherwise fairly cordial Sino/American relations. Why? Despite close American ties to Taiwan’s thriving democracy, the Bush Administration has clearly admonished the Taipei government to foreswear a formal “independence” option — a move which could cross Beijing’s security red line.

President George W. Bush stated bluntly: “We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

One of the few things both politically polar opposite China’s agreed on is that they were “China” albeit in a very different socio/political image and likeness. Taiwan has been a free and economically successful state whereas the Mainland remains an authoritarian communist regime now enjoying ever widening pockets of economic prosperity. Call it the status quo, but it works.

Taiwan already happily has de facto independence from the Mainland; reminding Beijing’s Marxist Mandarins of this reality endangers roiling the waters across the Taiwan Straits.

Taiwan’s maverick President Chen Shui-bian is needlessly flirting with a heady mix of unbridled democracy and economic prosperity. Chen is facing a Presidential election in March next year. To this backdrop he has proposed a host of hot button referendums ranging from rewriting the ROC Constitution, (which could lead to the change of Taiwan’s official name, flag, etc.), along with an eventual vote as to Taiwan should formally go independent. The referendum issue, no matter what its political merit, brings social instability to Taiwan as it provides the perfect excuse for the PRC communists to militarily bully the island.

While in many ways Chen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is stating the obvious, reflecting a genuine political and demographic evolution on the island of 23 million, the very discussion of these long taboo options presents a humiliating loss of face to the PRC communists. Though a clear exercise of democracy, such moves court possible political disaster.

Taiwan’s opposition parties including the formerly ruling Nationalists (KMT), have tried to steer the ship of state from these dangerous shoals, but to little success.

People First Party (PFP) Chairman James Soong remarked that Taiwan should avoid a showdown with China over independence issues to ensure peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He stressed that the “status quo and the economy” should come first.

The People’s Republic of China has never renounced the use of military force to bring Taiwan “back to the Motherland.” Though the communists never ruled Taiwan for a single day, Beijing is willing to patiently endure the status quo as not to endanger its global trade boom and its plans to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Needless to say, PRC perceptions of Taipei’s intentions can raise the rhetorical ante across the Straits. The Taiwan independence issue can spin out of control pulling the US into a political vortex at a time when the US faces an equally looming threat from North Korea. East Asia’s geopolitical balance can be dangerously jolted, and Taiwan’s hard-won prosperity mortgaged to political polemics.

Contrary to the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland, the Republic of China on Taiwan is a victim of its own success. Let’s hope that Taiwan does not become a victim of its own political rhetoric.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World

Thursday, December 11, 2003

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