Taiwan: Chen Lets Off Steam

JOHN J. TKACIK, JR.

Copyright The Asian Wall Street Journal
1 March 2006
WASHINGTON — It’s fashionable in some quarters to suggest that the Bush administration is exasperated with Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s supposed attempts to “provoke” China. And that Monday’s announcement that a cross-strait reunification body known as the National Unification Council “will cease to function” has caused further anger in Washington.
The truth is rather different. The prevailing sentiment in the Bush Administration is to sympathize with President Chen’s frustration that, after six years of policy concessions and diplomatic outreach to Beijing, he has gotten nothing in return. People in the administration working on China say that Monday’s symbolic decision — the council is not being formally disbanded and, in any case, for all practical purposes ceased to function many years ago — “has not happened in a vacuum.” In particular, they point to last year’s enactment of China’s anti-secession law, mandating the use of force to take the island, and the luring of Taiwan opposition leaders Lien Chan and James Soong to the mainland on high-profile visits designed to isolate President Chen.
“China surrounds this guy and is closing in on the
> last piece of
> metaphysical territory he controls,” one told me.
> “They try to isolate him
> and beat him down. What do they expect?” Add in
> Beijing’s military
> buildup, with an estimated 800 ballistic missiles now
> targeted against the
> island, and its relentless efforts to deny Taiwan any
> access to
> international bodies — even over matters of life and
> death, such as a possible
> avian flu outbreak — and it’s clear which side the
> provocations are
> really coming from. Beijing “can’t constantly increase
> the pressure on
> someone and not expect it to blow,” said one
> China-watcher in the Bush
> administration.
>
> It’s not just the White House that understands
> President Chen’s
> dilemma. He is caught between unbearable pressure from
> Beijing — aided by the
> pro-China Kuomintang and People First Party in Taiwan
> — and
> pro-independence forces within his own Democratic
> Progressive Party, as well as
> the avowedly pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union.
> Within that
> context, President Chen has steered a clever path,
> making repeated
> concessions to allay any concerns Washington might
> have initially had about
> Monday’s move.
>
> Two U.S. envoys — reliably reported in the Taiwan
> press to be National
> Security Council Asia specialist Dennis Wilder and the
> State
> Department’s chief Taiwan staffer, Clifford Hart —
> flew to Taiwan for six hours
> of talks with President Chen last week. They returned
> convinced by his
> argument that the decision on the National Unification
> Council was of
> no practical consequence. Established by the
> Kuomintang in 1990, the
> council has not met since 1999 and has an annual
> budget of just $33.45.
> President Chen was even prepared to compromise on the
> wording of Monday’s
> announcement. Washington had frowned upon the use of
> the Chinese terms
> for “scrap” (feichu) or “abolish” (tingzhi), to
> describe the fate of
> the already moribund body. But the decision instead to
> announce that the
> council would simply “cease” (zhongzhi) to function
> sounded more like a
> mere suspension of its work and was something the Bush
> administration
> could live with.
>
> Moreover, President Chen made hand-over-heart promises
> that there would
> be no niggling with the so-called “Four No’s,” his
> pledges in both his
> 2000 and 2004 inaugural addresses not to change
> Taiwan’s official name,
> flag or constitution, or even hold a referendum on
> these matters. At a
> Monday evening press conference in Taipei, these four
> pledges were
> reiterated by Taiwan’s three top foreign policy
> officials, Presidential
> Office Chief of Staff Mark Chen, Foreign Minister
> James Huang and National
> Security Council Secretary General Chiou I-jen — a
> move immediately
> welcomed by the White House. The U.S. State Department
> was equally
> positive. “President Chen has said he is committed to
> the status quo, he is
> not changing the status quo and he is committed to his
> inaugural
> pledges,” said spokesman Adam Ereli during Monday’s
> press briefing.
>
> That won’t, of course, stop Taiwan’s pro-China
> politicians from trying
> to cause trouble over the issue. They risk seeing one
> of their most
> important cards — the charge that Mr. Chen is
> “jeopardizing Taiwan’s ties
> with its most important ally” — undermined by
> Washington’s relaxed
> reaction to Monday’s announcement. No wonder then that
> opposition leaders
> are already trying to stir up controversy by calling
> for a symbolic
> “recall” vote in the Legislative Yuan and threatening
> a mass demonstration
> on March 12. The possibility this could degenerate
> into the same sort
> of violence seen during the protests that followed
> President Chen’s
> narrow re-election in March 2004 cannot be ruled out,
> and the Bush
> administration would be well-advised to prepare for
> this eventuality. But
> hopefully reason will prevail, and Taiwan’s pro-China
> politicians will
> realize that such an overreaction is unlikely to gain
> them support among
> Taiwan’s voters or any sympathy in Washington — where
> it would only cast
> doubt on the opposition parties’ commitment to
> democracy and rule of
> law.
>
> Beijing too is likely to rattle its sabers a bit more
> loudly in the
> coming weeks. An editorial in yesterday’s China Daily
> warned that
> President Chen’s actions “will no doubt stoke tensions
> and trigger a serious
> crisis” and the official Xinhua news agency alluded
> vaguely to a looming
> “disaster.” But, like other official reactions to
> Monday’s
> announcement, it stopped short of making any specific
> threats. That’s most likely,
> at least in part, because Beijing realizes that
> overreacting to a move
> the U.S. has already accepted could jeopardize the
> reception Chinese
> President Hu Jintao receives in April, when he pays
> his first official
> visit to Washington.
>
> As for the Bush administration, there are far more
> important issues on
> the U.S.-Taiwan agenda than the “cessation of
> functions” of a moribund
> council. There is talk of a free-trade agreement, a
> bilateral taxation
> understanding and a multilateral working group on
> intellectual-property
> violations that needs attention. Given a few weeks of
> quiet, Washington
> and Taipei can turn their attention to these issues —
> and Taipei will
> once again have a chance to show that it is a more
> reliable and
> valuable U.S. partner in Asia than Beijing will ever
> be.
>
> Mr. Tkacik, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served in
> Taipei, Beijing,
> Hong Kong and Guangzhou, is now senior research fellow
> in Asian Studies
> at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
>
> http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114116463786585777.html

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