The real stakes in Taiwan

There was never any doubt about the outcome of Taiwan’s bid to regain a seat in the United Nations. For the 15th time in as many years, the U.N. rejected Taipei’s call to return to the world body. The application did not even make it to the General Assembly agenda, having been blocked by the General Assembly’s General Committee amid adamant opposition from China.

Beijing insists that the island is a part of the “one China” and Taipei’s efforts to claim a seat at the U.N. are part of a campaign to promote independence. That may be true, at least as far as Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and his backers are concerned, but the sentiments behind the U.N. bid do reflect the Taiwan people’s deep-seated yearning for respect and the assertion of their identity as Taiwanese. To confuse those aspirations with partisan politics will compound tensions.

Taiwan left the U.N. in 1971, when the People’s Republic of China was awarded the “China” seat. As both Beijing and Taipei each insisted that it was the rightful government of a single China, Taiwan withdrew from the world body rather than try to claim a separate seat of its own. While Beijing sticks to the one-China principle — and demands that it be honored by all countries with which it has diplomatic relations — Taiwan’s politics have evolved. Today, a growing number of Taiwanese think of themselves as fundamentally different from Chinese and demand recognition of that fact.

Chief among them is Mr. Chen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has made Taiwan’s identity the cornerstone of its political agenda. Mr. Chen, the DPP and his government have worked assiduously to have the rest of the world recognize it as a sovereign entity. It has been a frustrating endeavor since Beijing has used all of its influence to deny Taiwan international space. The result has been seemingly Quixotic campaigns such as the U.N. bid, in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

This year, however, there was a twist. Rather than applying as the “Republic of China,” the official name of the island government and the name of the entity that left the U.N. in 1971, Taipei applied as “Taiwan.” This infuriated China. Beijing is convinced that the use of “Taiwan” has two purposes: First, it looks like an attempt to create a legal basis for a new political entity that would not be part of “one China”; second, it appears designed to drive a wedge into Taiwanese politics for the benefit of the DPP in elections next year. At present, the opposition Kuomintang is favored in the elections.

China responded with even more vitriol than usual. After the General Committee vote, Chinese officials said the decision was confirmation that Taiwan is part of China. Taiwanese officials were unbowed, promising to continue to try to win a U.N. seat and maintaining that their island is a sovereign entity, even if it does not enjoy that legal status.

While it is tempting to see this as a tempest in a political teacup, the stakes are huge. China has repeatedly warned that it will use force if Taiwan declares independence — and more worryingly, if Taipei takes other less well-defined steps that Beijing considers a move toward independence. Some Taiwanese either dismiss this as bluster or cite it as proof that China is a dangerous, demanding country. It is evidence nonetheless of the potential for instability and conflict in the Taiwan Strait. That is why some of Taiwan’s closest friends and allies denounced Mr. Chen’s actions as provocative. Mr. Thomas Christensen, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, minced no words, cautioning that “it is not just Taiwan’s peace and stability that Taipei’s actions may threaten.”

Mr. Chen certainly has political calculations in mind as he presses the U.N. campaign and proceeds with a referendum on U.N. membership that will be held at the same time as the presidential election in March. But to dismiss this entire phenomenon as a political scheme is wrong, too. Increasing numbers of people in Taiwan do not think of themselves as Chinese. They have made extraordinary progress in building a vibrant democracy and creating one of the world’s economic powerhouses. They want credit for those accomplishments.

Ignoring this yearning will not make it go away. Beijing’s merciless campaign to deny Taiwan international space is strengthening a collective sense of grievance and — yes — a separate identity. All nations must help find a middle ground that acknowledges the remarkable gains made by Taiwan without crossing the red lines that would provoke a crisis.

Respect for Taiwan, rather than fear of China, should be the guiding principles of cross-strait relations. It would pay dividends on both sides of the strait and for all nations of the region.