Cross-Strait relations:
hope for a breakthrough?

TAIPEI >> Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian clearly heard the warnings issued by Washington and, less subtly, by Beijing prior to his inauguration. Beijing warned that it would "crush their schemes firmly and thoroughly at any cost" if Taiwan's leaders continued their "dangerous lurch toward independence."

Washington advised Chen to take Beijing's threats seriously.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian takes the oath for the chairmanship of the Democratic Progressive Party.

Message received! Chen's May 20 inauguration address was filled with olive branches; it addressed all of Beijing's (and Washington's) major concerns. Despite opposition from his own Democratic Progressive Party and the even more independence-prone Taiwan Solidarity Union, Chen agreed to "reaffirm the promises and principles set forth in my inaugural speech in 2000," in effect reassuring Beijing that he would not declare independence, change the national title, push for "state-to-state" terminology in the constitution, promote an independence referendum or abolish the dormant but still symbolic National Reunification Council or Guidelines.

Chen even said that he understood why Beijing "cannot relinquish the insistence on its 'One China Principle.'"

Still, Chen said, both sides "can seek to establish relations in any form whatsoever."

The speech's cooperative tone, after an election contest that had included a great deal of China-bashing, was a clear signal that Chen understands the difference between campaign rhetoric and the realities of governing in China's shadow.

Unfortunately, China's initial response has been déjà vu all over again. In its May 17 pre-election warning, Beijing had held out the possibility of "equal-footed consultations," including a willingness to address the issue of "international living space ... commensurate with (Taiwan's) status so as to share the dignity of the Chinese nation." But rather than seeing Chen's speech as a step in this direction, Beijing announced last Monday that the inauguration address had shown "no sincerity to improve relations," repeating Beijing's long-standing demand that Chen "acknowledge that Taiwan and mainland China together both belong to a single country."

Rattling a few sabers, China's authoritative Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Zhang Mingqing also noted that Chen "has not reduced the possibility of conflict. The threats to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait continue to exist."

This uncompromising approach has not worked for the past four years; it is likely to fail again. If there is to be any hope for a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations, Beijing needs to pursue a more imaginative, flexible approach. Its current policies, President Chen observed, "drive the hearts of the Taiwanese people farther away and widen the divide in the Strait."

The first thing Beijing should do is drop its continued reference to "one country, two systems." Instead, it should offer a "one nation, two states; one country, two governments" formula that would put meaning behind its offer of an "equal-footed" approach. The Taiwan leadership would be hard-pressed to reject such an approach.

There are many other things Beijing could do to draw Chen down the "right" path. It could support Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization as a "health entity." Chen has effectively used China's continued blockage of Taiwan's WHO participation as a political hammer to beat up those who still support closer cross-Strait cooperation. It is unclear why Beijing thinks it is advantageous to arm the DPP with such an effective weapon.

Beijing should at least freeze and preferably reduce its missile forces opposite Taiwan. In deciding not to sell the AEGIS shipborne missile defense system to Taiwan in 2001, the Bush administration indicated that it would re-evaluate this decision based on the nature of the threat. Can anyone imagine President Bush, in an election year, ignoring a new Taiwanese request for better missile defenses? The Democrats would have to wait in line behind Bush's own supporters to criticize another turndown. A missile reduction is more than a good will gesture; it makes strategic sense. The introduction of AEGIS will largely undermine the psychological value of China's missiles or force an even greater missile build-up to compensate.

Chen has taken the first step. Some diplomatic gestures by Beijing now could play a major role in setting the tone for future cross-Strait cooperation, if Beijing has the political courage and foresight to wave olive branches rather than sabers toward Taiwan.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS and senior editor of Comparative Connections.


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