Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian last weekend bid to improve relations with China. In his National Day speech, Mr. Chen called on Beijing to resume long-stalled talks and help build confidence and lower tension across the Taiwan Strait. Critically, he seems willing to resume talks on the basis of the “one China” principle, which has been the foundation of Beijing’s approach to Taiwan. Suspicions toward Mr. Chen persist in China, but the best way to address them is to test the president to see whether he is, in fact, willing to build a bridge across the troubled strait. China is unlikely to make that move.
Relations between Beijing and Taipei have been especially contentious since Mr. Chen took office in 2000. A member of the Democratic Progressive Party, he is the first opposition president to rule the island, considered a renegade province by the mainland. Mr. Chen’s election shocked the Chinese leadership. Mr. Chen had devoted his political life to seeking independence for Taiwan, and Beijing did not think he had substantial support on the island. The mandarins in Beijing were also sure that Taiwanese voters would heed Chinese warnings that his election would endanger relations between the two governments.
Beijing miscalculated. Mr. Chen was elected and relations deteriorated. The new president touted a Taiwanese national identity and worked to win more international recognition for Taiwan. China continued to insist that any discussions with Taiwan could begin only when Taipei accepted the “one China” principle, which was agreed to by the two governments in historic talks in 1992. Mr. Chen refused and the stalemate endured.
Chinese suspicions toward Mr. Chen have mounted because of fears that he wants to declare independence before his term concludes in 2008. That date is tempting because Beijing will be hosting the Summer Olympics, and there is the belief that China would not do anything to cast a shadow over that event. The Chinese have insisted that such an assumption is dangerous and that Beijing would do whatever it takes — including launch military action — to prevent Taiwan’s independence.
Cognizant of the rising tensions in the strait and under increasing pressure from other governments that believe Mr. Chen deserves much of the blame for the worsening situation, the president in his National Day speech said he was willing to resume discussions on the basis of the 1992 “one China” agreement as long as the two governments conceded that they have different interpretations of what that means. Here, he is correct: Negotiators have conceded that the “one China” policy was an artful compromise that was never actually defined. The two sides merely agreed to disagree.
In his speech, Mr. Chen noted that leadership changes in Beijing have created opportunities for talks, calling on the two sides to resume dialogue to build confidence. He endorses arms control and a code of conduct to help restore stability in the strait.
Mr. Chen’s willingness to return to the 1992 fudge is to be applauded, although Beijing is unlikely to reciprocate — at least not yet. As usual, the president hedged his comments by noting that any decision on Taiwan’s status must be endorsed by its 23 million people. He also insisted (as he has long maintained) that Taiwan is a sovereign entity entitled to U.N. membership and diplomatic recognition. Although Beijing has not yet commented on the proposal, mainland Taiwan-watchers dismissed the speech as mere wordplay. They accuse the president of appealing to moderate voters in Taiwan in the runup to the December legislative elections and of trying to appease Washington, which has expressed disappointment and anger at Mr. Chen for roiling the cross-strait relationship.
There is little chance that Beijing will do anything before the December elections. It is reluctant to adjust any policy or take any action that might be construed as helping Mr. Chen’s party, which is a minority in Taiwan’s legislature. Moreover, in the zero-sum calculus that rules cross-strait relations, Mr. Chen’s speech seems to signal that he is on the defensive. So, rather than encourage compromise, Beijing may demand more.
That would be a mistake. Mr. Chen’s political position is the result of important changes within Taiwan. He represents the rising aspirations of an indigenous Taiwanese political identity. Beijing’s policies not only denigrate that consciousness, but give Mr. Chen additional pull in domestic politics: opposition to Beijing as a political principle.
The smart policy is not to try to wait out Mr. Chen — since Taiwanese sentiment is only growing — but to co-opt his supporters. Beijing must try to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people. A political dialogue with Taipei would be an important step in that process. Mr. Chen has offered the mainland a way to begin those talks; Beijing should reciprocate.
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