It is still unclear why Mr. Lee Teng-hui, the president of Taiwan, said earlier this month that relations between his government and China’s mainland government should be conducted on a “special state-to-state” basis. (Any hopes that he had been misquoted were shattered when he repeated the comments earlier this week.) Predictably, the comment enraged Beijing and has triggered a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s friends immediately disavowed any support for the island’s independence, but that has not prevented an increase of tension in the region — without any commensurate gains for Taipei. If anything, Mr. Lee has done his country a disservice and offered China an opportunity to score diplomatic points at its expense merely by acting responsibly. It is a chance that Beijing should not squander.
There are several explanations for Mr. Lee’s comment. In an article on the opposite page, Mr. David Shambaugh, a longtime U.S. China-watcher, argues that domestic factors, such as the election next year or Mr. Lee’s legacy, were the president’s chief concerns. The suggestion that Mr. Lee might have been speaking off the cuff — a habit he is noted for — is belied by reports that a top-secret panel had been studying the implications of the statement for a year.
Yet no matter what the explanation, it must be noted that Mr. Lee did not declare independence. Indeed, he explicitly said that there was “no need to declare independence.” Moreover, the president did not assert that Taiwan and the mainland were no longer separately governed parts of the same country. Such subtleties should not be lost on the Beijing government.
The angry rhetoric coming from the mainland is to be expected, however. This week, there are unconfirmed reports of military exercises in China near the Taiwan coast. In a telephone conversation with U.S. President Bill Clinton, Chinese President Jiang Zemin pointedly refused to rule out the option of using force against the island. Given that almost 90 percent of mainlanders back the use of force should Taipei declare independence, to expect anything else from Beijing is unrealistic.
But Mr. Jiang need go no further than strong rhetoric. No country backs Taiwanese independence. In his conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Mr. Clinton reiterated U.S. support for the “one-China” policy. Indeed, if Mr. Lee had hoped to exploit the recent difficulties in the Sino-U.S. relationship, he has misjudged badly. If anything, Washington’s quick disavowal of any change in its policy may have helped get relations between China and the U.S. back on track after a rocky few weeks.
Normalcy is what the region needs. Beijing’s saber-rattling has already worried investors. The Taipei stock market fell 13 percent last week, although it has regained some ground on the back of strong government intervention and the creation of “a stabilization fund.” Markets in China have also fallen this week. That news comes on the heels of economic statistics that show growth falling below the critical 8 percent level that is needed to keep the Chinese economy on an even footing. Economists argue that massive stimulus measures will be needed if China is to reach its targets for the year. Domestic Chinese are being encouraged to put their savings in the market, and foreign investors are being courted. Neither group is likely to commit funds in an atmosphere of uncertainty.
The desire to avoid a reckless escalation does not mean that relations between the two governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait will return to normal anytime soon. Mr. Lee’s statement probably put a limit on how far normalization can go as long as he remains in office. In October, Mr. Wang Daohan, China’s top negotiator on Taiwan issues, is scheduled to go to Taipei. That would make him the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit the island since 1949 and would give a much-needed fillip to the relationship. That trip is now in jeopardy, but the fact that it has not yet been canceled is encouraging.
The burden is now on Mr. Lee to set things straight. If he is truly concerned with his legacy, he should focus on establishing a dialogue between the two governments. Mr. Lee says that he still hopes for the eventual reunification of Taipei and Beijing, although he adds that it would only make sense after the mainland has democratized. Through deeper engagement with China, Taiwan can help further that process.
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