Feb 22, 2008

Taiwan: A New Machiavellian Policy From China?

China is turning its attentions to the United States in attempts to thwart any moves to independence by the thriving island nation.

China is turning its attentions on the United States in its attempts to thwart any moves to independence by the thriving island nation.

Below is an article written by Ting-I Tsai published by Asia Times:

What began as an election gambit that would give Taiwanese voters the chance to express their belief that Taiwan is a sovereign country now has the country's ruling party scrambling to avert what it believes would be a diplomatic setback and vindication of rival China's new approach in influencing the island.

When Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian announced his decision in June 2007 to initiate a referendum, he thought it could have the same effect as two referendums held together with the 2004 presidential poll. Although they failed to pass because fewer than the required 50% of eligible voters participated, Chen claimed they were decisive factors in his narrow victory.

But after suffering a lopsided defeat in January [2008]'s legislative elections that dented its confidence, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has sensed that the referendum might not have as big an impact on this election as originally thought.

It now fears that failure of its proposed referendum and another one proposed by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) on re-entering the United Nations under the name "Republic of China" or any other "practical" and "dignified" name would send an inaccurate message to Beijing: that Taiwanese people do not want to be independent of China and that its efforts to indirectly restrain Taiwan by pressuring Washington to interfere in the island's affairs are effective.

Unlike its previous approach of directly threatening Taiwan over its holding of referendums in 2004, Beijing pressured Washington this time around to deliver its message.

"Beijing's approach is brand new and totally different from the past," said a former senior Taiwanese cross-strait affairs official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official contended that the DPP government had failed to recognize the change and come up with a way to counter it.

Beijing has repeatedly warned Washington since 2005 that Taiwan would likely declare independence before President Chen steps down in May 2008. Chinese officials suggested numerous scenarios under which this would happen to their Washington counterparts, including Taiwan's declaring independence by adopting a new constitution, President Chen's creating an incident in the Taiwan Strait to escalate tension, and simply declaring independence based on a positive outcome in the UN-bid referendum.

To push Washington to further restrain Taiwan, China's Taiwan Affairs Office deputy director Sun Yafu warned in December [2007] that Taiwan's referendum on the UN bid could lead to a scenario similar to that of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The de facto independent republic located in northern Cyprus declared its independence in 1983, and while it has only been recognized by Turkey since then, its status has remained unchanged.

Furthermore, two US academics, Drew Thompson and Nikolas Gvosdev, both from the Washington-based Nixon Center, noted in January [2008] that Beijing's concerns about Kosovo's independence declaration would complicate the issue of Taiwan's international status.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday [19 February 2008] that Taiwan has no right to acknowledge Kosovo's independence.

Washington has applied heavy pressure on Taiwan, first urging the DPP government to cancel the referendum and then simply publicly opposing it. On January 17 [2008], US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told journalists in Beijing that Taiwan's UN referendum is "provocative" and "a mistake". That came shortly after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice voiced opposition to the referendum in her annual press conference in late December [2008], saying that it unnecessarily raised tension in the region.

Beijing, on the other hand, has remained relatively quiet on the subject. One of the few times it criticized the referendums publicly was on February 2 [2008], when Taiwan's Central Election Commission finalized the schedule to hold the referendum along with the March 22 [2008] presidential election.

According to an article by Shi Yinhong, professor of International Relations at Renmin University, Beijing started to shift away from its policy of harshly condemning Taiwan between 2000 and 2001. At the same time, Beijing concluded that it should gradually convince the administrations in the White House through the upcoming administrations to accept the unification of China, and have Washington make a political choice between Taipei and Beijing.

"China should prepare for war with a serious and determined attitude, and continually maintain and escalate American's fears and concerns over a war across the Strait," Shi wrote. "This would be a crucial reason for the US to slowly accept China's unification."

In a rare television interview broadcasted on February 2 [2008], Shi Hwei-yow, the director-general of Taiwan's National Security Bureau, confirmed that China's military buildup against Taiwan has been more ambitious than ever.

Based on the observations of Taiwanese and Chinese analysts, Chinese President Hu Jintao has been the key force behind the new approach to handing Taiwan affairs, developed after consulting academics from various fields rather than relying solely on China's Taiwan experts.

Huang Jing, a Washington-based Chinese academic, suggested that President Hu has realized that Washington has been a key player in the Taiwan-China dispute and he has tried hard to align the strategic interests of Beijing and Washington related to Taiwan.

With doubts over how far Washington could be trusted, the new approach prompted a division of opinion among Chinese scholars.

In November [2008], Yuan Peng, director of the Institute of American Studies under the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, publicly argued that Beijing should tentatively trust Washington at least once on Taiwan's referendum issue, while a Beijing-based Taiwan expert, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, argued in an interview, "I might be old-fashioned, but I never thought America should be allowed to get involved in Taiwan affairs."

Under pressure from Washington, and faced with the possibility that the two referendums will fail to meet the participation threshold (as was the case with two separate referendums held alongside the January 12 [2008] legislative polls), DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh has urged President Chen to consider initiating a third referendum that ensures Taiwan's international space and could be endorsed by both the ruling and opposition parties. He has also suggested endorsing the KMT's proposed referendum.

Most Washington-based academics, however, believe the move has come too late.

Richard Bush, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, noted that the DPP is trying to make the best of a bad situation that it created itself.

"It [Washington] tried every way it could to convince President Chen not to go forward with this process, but he did so against our advice. Why would Washington accept a process that leads to an outcome it opposes?" Bush noted.

Alan Romberg, senior associate and director of the East Asia Program at the Henry L Stimson Center, echoed Bush's view by arguing, "Now that they [DPP] see the potential consequences, it is simply too late to rewind the clock."

Whether the DPP can come up with a third referendum backed by both parties remains to be seen, but some pro-KMT academics have warned that the KMT would suffer from even worse diplomatic isolation if its presidential candidate were to win the March [2008] election but the referendums failed to pass.

According to an analyst close to the DPP, holding a referendum that could explicitly detail the desire of Taiwan's people for international space would be its preferred scenario at present.

The US has also tried to nudge China not to obstruct Taiwan's participation in the international community. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Negroponte noted that Washington has urged Beijing to be "a little bit more generous toward Taiwan in regard to some of those organizations [global institutions that don't require being a state to hold membership]" and repeated US concerns toward Beijing's military buildup on the People's Republic of China's side of the Taiwan Strait.

Some Beijing-based academics are concerned that a divide between Beijing and Washington would develop should the KMT's referendum, which Washington hasn't really opposed, pass.

In a presentation given in Washington recently, Bonnie Glaser, senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Beijing recognizes that it will face unprecedented challenges in responding to Taiwan's demands for greater international space and reductions in its military threat toward Taiwan in a meaningful way if the candidate Beijing apparently favors, the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, wins the presidential election.