TAIWAN...on Monday, Dep. Sec. Negroponte continued the Bush Administration's "dual strategy" of working to reassure Beijing that the US will not tolerate risky moves by the DPP government on Taiwan, while firmly whacking the DPP.
He repeated the Administration's very strong public warnings to President Chen about a referendum on United Nations membership, bluntly calling Chen's maneuvering a "mistake" and flatly warning why:
"We oppose the notion of that kind of a referendum because we see that as a step toward a declaration of independence for Taiwan [and thus] towards the [unilateral] alteration of the status-quo."
Continuing, he said, "We believe it's important to avoid any kind of provocative steps on the part of Taiwan." (Note the open-ended use of "any kind"...not just a specific objection to the UN membership issue...note the possible implications, discussed below.)
For those who don't follow Taiwan in depth, this on-going squabble can easily be misunderstood, since the actions being promised (threatened?) by Chen seem largely symbolic.
In fact, there is some debate in US policy making circles, as on Taiwan, whether voter approval of something as inherently impossible to accomplish as full-nation state status at the United Nations means anything...anything except a poke in the eye to Beijing, and implictly, the Bush Administration's treatment of the DPP.
At a minimum, Chen's campaign helps to tie the hands of his would-be successor, DPP presidential nominee Frank Hsieh, as Hsieh discovered to his chagrin, during his brief, brutally frank meetings with State Department and White House officials earlier this summer.
As we reported on Aug. 10, before fleeing to the beach, serious policy types worry that if President Chen continues to push UN membership, however symbolic in reality, he runs the risk of China feeling justified in something "non-peaceful", despite the presumed limitations of the 2008 Olympics, etc.
Less drastically, if some of Taiwan's remaining official diplomatic partners push a formal debate and vote at the UN, as is apparently being urged by Chen, this could prove both embarassing and "difficult" for the US, but even worse for Taiwan.
Concerned US observers warn that forcing the issue in this way may put at risk nearly all of Taiwan's remaining formal diplomatic relationships, since Beijing may finally conclude its "had enough" with ambiguous US policy and the protections afforded to Taiwan over the years.
"If it boils down to a simple 'bidding war' between Taipei and Beijing, this is a diplomatic recognition fight Taiwan cannot win," comments a well-informed, and very concerned player.
To be frank, US observers ask how any Taiwanese official with a full grasp of reality would want to risk any or all of the above.
And there's more: if the DPP persists, there is a rising sense that the US might feel forced to change to a flat negative the deliberately ambiguous formulation that while the US does not support independence for Taiwan, it does not oppose it, either.
Note how close Negroponte came to that with his clear warning, above, that the US opposes even the "notion" of a UN referendum "because we see that as a step toward a declaration of independence for Taiwan..."
The US (and Chinese) concern all along, reaching back to the early days of the Bush Administration, is that the DPP government seems willing to risk changing the mutually acceptable terms of debate in cross-Strait relations in ways which increases the risk that Beijing will feel compelled to react in risky ways.
As in all action/reaction squabbles, each side can pick and chose any particular point in time, or action, to justify their latest action/reaction.
Regardless, as the Taiwanese election campaign proceeds, both US and Chinese officials clearly are increasingly worried, and Beijing is intensifying its pressure on Washington to "control" players events which do not dance to the Bush Administration's tune.
Why would any Taiwanese official with a full grasp of reality engage in such moves? Perhaps it because Taiwanese officials have a full grasp of reality -- that China has not punished Taiwan or the US for any of Taiwan's moves as of yet -- because the PRC knows it can count on the US State Department incurring the cost of suppressing Taiwan independence. Things would look very different if State remained silent and China was forced to engage in repeated threats, bombastic posturing, missile launches during elections, detentions of Taiwanese businessmen, and so on. Everyone would see that China is just another bullying imperial state. However, with State on the the beat, China can look statesmanlike, patient, forebearing -- it could play its game of being the Aggrieved Semi-colony. One could just as well wonder why anyone with a full grasp of reality would serve Beijing so, but we're long past that, at least on this blog.
EDITED TO ADD: Why would any Taiwanese politician in their right mind follow this course? Because they know that when they play out the diplomatic string and their recognition disappears, it will have nothing to do with Taiwan -- the island will still be there, still independent, in the morning -- but the ROC will have disappeared. That government, which none of the DPP considers legitimate, exists only so long as someone else recognizes it. Once Taiwan has no recognition, it will actually be independent -- independent of the PRC/ROC rivalry, and its hands will no longer be tied by the struggle for diplomatic recognition for an ever-shriveling virtual state.
Beijing knows this. That is why, despite what they say -- and what they say is political theatre -- Beijing will continue to tolerate recognition of Taiwan by small countries -- just as they continue to let Taiwan hang on to Kinmen and Matsu -- because as long as Taiwan has a little piece of China, as long as somehow someone recognizes it as "China," it is still part of the motherland.
At the same time, since the US does not have its head on straight, and Taiwan isn't going to stop the referendum drive, the two sides need to sit down and work out a solution both can live with. Beijing isn't going to start a war over a UN entry that can't possibly succeed. In the highly unlikely event that the General Assembly approves such a thing, Beijing can veto it. Hopefully Taipei will wake up to what is going on in DC and adjust its course accordingly.
I'm off to have a drink. Because without mind altering substances, following this mess is extremely painful.
[Taiwan] [US] [China] [UN]