The New York Times regularly signals changes in the conventional wisdom of our foreign policy elite. Careful reading of its reporting on the election of Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan suggests that the impossiblilities of the policies laid down in the 1970’s are now, gradually, being faced.
To be sure, the Times editorial page joins in the official delight at the overwhelming defeat of the Democratic Progressive Party of the widely vilified President Chen Shuibian, who “spent much of the last eight years baiting Beijing, talking about independence, and seeking international recognition.”
With the departure of Chen, and the election of a president of Chinese ancestry, fluent in English and with a degree from Harvard Law School, the Times sees “a chance for a healthy new start” in Taiwan-China relations. “Mr. Ma has proposed economic opening to China, military confidence building measures, and “a diplomatic framework in which the two sides simply acknowledge each other’s existence.” “The Bush administration” it tells us “is already pressing Beijing to work with Mr. Ma”–this even before he has been inaugurated.
The hopes of both the Times and of Washington are likely to be disappointed. When that happens, they will both face a test.
To begin with, Ma has stated that China must dismantle the thousand-plus missiles with which she currently targets the island. He has also welcomed a visit to his country by the Dalai Lama. That is already enough to enrage Beijing, but only a start.
The truly tricky task, as the newspaper noted two days earlier, will be for Ma “to find a formula that balances Beijing’s position that Taiwan is a breakaway province and Taiwan’s position that it is a sovereign country.”
Finding such a formula will be more than tricky. It will be impossible without the (highly unlikely) amendment of the Chinese constitution, which explicitly claims Taiwan as a province—a fact the Times does not mention.
The result? The “healthy new start” that the Times anticipates will likely lead nowhere. Like every elected president of Taiwan, Ma will have to choose between standing for what his people want and yielding to Beijing. When Ma likely refuses to yield, Beijing will castigate him and call on Washington to do the same—as we always have in the past.
But maybe not this time. The conclusion of the editorial suggests that the blame for failure may now be laid at Beijing’s door.
“China’s authoritarian ways are backfiring in Tibet,” the editorial concludes. “Whatever Beijing’s fantasies about unification, it is not likely to happen soon-and maybe not ever–given Taiwan’s strong commitment to political and economic freedom. China would be better off following Mr. Ma’s lead . . .”
Following Mr. Ma is something that Beijing is unlikely to do. But for Washington, like the Times, to offer steady support to realistic proposals by Taiwan’s democratically-elected government would be a genuinely constructive change.