Taipei rides out China storm, but drawing ever closer


TAIPEI — Taiwanese people are breathing a sigh of relief that cross-strait tensions whipped up by President Chen Shui-bian’s provocative speech on Aug. 3 appear, at least for the moment, to have abated.

Chen’s reference to Taiwan and China as “one country on each side of the Taiwan Strait,” provoked Beijing’s ire, and some even feared a major confrontation between the two sides.

That storm seems to have subsided following efforts by Taiwanese officials to explain that the speech merely spelled out the status quo and that Taipei has no intention to change the present situation.

“This is not the time to talk tough and fight,” said Sun Kauo-hwa, a lawmaker of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, pointing out that China’s attention has turned to the Communist Party Congress, slated to open Nov. 8, where observers say Chinese President Jiang Zemin is expected to retire as general secretary.

Also helping lessen tension in the Taiwan Strait is a shift in U.S. priorities that has led to a thaw between the United States and China.

After President George W. Bush came to power, the U.S. government repeatedly raised concerns about China’s rapid military buildup, but their focus has since shifted to the war on terrorism and attacking Iraq.

“The last thing they (the U.S.) want is another confrontation in the Taiwan Strait,” said Sun.

Washington can employ its huge leverage over Beijing via a flood of U.S. investment and technology into China, and because Chinese firms’ access to U.S. markets has been a driving force in China’s economic growth. China enjoys a $70 billion a year trade surplus with the U.S.

“The U.S. can threaten China if there is a confrontation; all this will be gone,” Sun said.

Looming large on China’s agenda is Jiang’s scheduled visit to Bush’s Texas ranch on Oct. 25. Observers say the Chinese president will try to use the occasion to build friendship and a spirit of cooperation with the U.S.

“Such treatment has only been granted to heads of state from a number of the U.S.’ allies, so Jiang is happy that he will receive such treatment,” said a senior Japanese politician who recently visited China. “China is totally focused on this historic event now.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department reportedly pulled together heads of major Chinese media institutions on Aug. 30 to demand that positive aspects of Sino-U.S. relations be highlighted in news reports on the issue, and that they be careful about wording on sensitive issues.

But no matter how America’s presence helps shield Taiwan in the short term, the possible “hollowing out” of the island’s economy, as more Taiwanese factories and people move to China to take advantage of its cheap labor and vast market, is ironically making the island’s economy inextricably linked with that of China.

Chiang Pin-kung, vice speaker of the Taiwanese Parliament and the former economy minister, said another conflict with Taiwan is unlikely to occur so long as China considers the economic situation advantageous to itself.

So far, China has enjoyed the benefits of using Taiwanese funds and technology to develop its domestic economy. By absorbing Taiwan’s capital and weakening its economy, China can also prevent Taiwan’s independence, he believes.

“The reason why Taiwan has a say in the international arena is because it has money. Taiwan without money will have very little influence.”

A U.S.-China Security Review Commission report to the U.S. Congress in July predicted that in three to five years, the PLA will have sufficient military capability to pursue forceful absorption of Taiwan.

Thus, Taiwan’s only choice appears to be to seek support for its survival from the international community.

Recalling what former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said a few months ago, Chiang said, “He told me ‘The fate of Singapore cannot only be determined by Singapore,’ and I feel the same about Taiwan.”

When China was weak, the U.S. and Japan had no reason to worry, Chiang said. But rapid military growth in China could pose a future threat to the U.S.

“If the U.S. and Japan are truly concerned about the security and stability of this region, they should always hold a ‘Taiwan card’ as a way to keep an eye on the growing Chinese power,” he said.