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Bush Backs Off on Taiwan

Though there’s been little notice of it in the press, the Bush administration appears to have made an enormous change in its Taiwan policy of the last three decades, abandoning the careful hedging that has long characterized it, and instead lining up with Beijing to force the island nation to agree to the mainland’s terms. The reason appears to be that harsh Chinese military threats intimidated Washington.

The story began when Taiwan’s president Chen Shuibian announced a referendum, to be held March 20, asking whether Taiwan should apply to the United Nations under the name Taiwan. Such a referendum may seem the right of any democratic people. But since the UN accepts only “sovereign states,” were Taiwan to enter under that name, its status as a country and not a territory would be confirmed.

This possibility set alarm bells ringing in Beijing, which successfully enlisted Washington to pressure Taiwan not to hold the vote, but with no success. Both major parties in the island support it.

Instead of wisely saying “no comment,” we adopted China’s definitions–again, one suspects, out of fear. Thus a recent U.S. Defense Department document reportedly “labeled the government’s proposed referendum on joining the UN under the name ‘Taiwan’ as an ‘independence referendum.’”

China has already enacted legislation that provides for automatic war in case of “Taiwan secession.”

Article 8 of China’s Anti-Secession Law, promulgated on March 14, 2005 provides that:

In the event that the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful re-unification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. (Italics mine.)

Taiwan is already a nation state in every respect but certain Chinese claims. The U.S., moreover, has never recognized any Chinese sovereignty over the island. But when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met Chinese General Cao Gangchuan yesterday, he got a dose of saber-rattling. The general stated menacingly that “the Chinese government will act in accordance with its anti-secession law to take any necessary actions for unification of the country.” That is to say: China will go to war.

President Bush appeared frightened as well. According to the American Forces Press Service, “President [George W.] Bush has said the United States is against independence for the island nation.” Make no mistake: these are fundamental changes in the American position. Worse, they confirm to Beijing that she can intimidate the United States. Washington undoubtedly sees this change as wise and expedient, given China’s growing power. What Washington misses are the longer term implications. To name but one, the security of Japan, our most important ally in the region, depends upon Taiwan’s continued independence. A strong stance, and a flat “no” to Chinese demands would, I suspect, have been the better road to peace.


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