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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 22, 2003

Playing politics with China-Taiwan dispute

If it is handled dexterously and patiently, there is every reason to believe that an equitable solution to the dispute over the relationship between China and Taiwan can evolve peacefully.

If it is mishandled, it threatens to put China and the United States on a direct and very dangerous collision course, to the benefit of no one.

What we have at the moment are some instances of reasonably skillful diplomacy being overtaken by some ugly opportunism in Washington and Taipei.

We don't for a moment blame residents of Taiwan, whose brawling democracy has flourished in recent years, for rejecting a takeover by China, which claims Taiwan as a stray province.

Beijing regularly renews its threat to use force against Taiwan if it declares independence, a threat underscored by nearly 500 medium-range missiles pointed at Taiwan from the Fujian coast. But for the Chinese to use even one of those missiles would be, in effect, to shoot themselves in the foot.

Most of Beijing's leaders are astute enough to understand that China's economy won't continue to grow at 7 percent or more each year — a minimum required to forestall a dangerously destabilizing spike in unemployment — without Taiwan businesses, which underwrite some 40 percent of foreign investment in China.

While China's leaders stress that their patience in seeking reunification is limited, they promise to use peaceful means if possible. That approach reflects their difficult position — at once dependent on Taiwan investment, yet ever reminded that reunification has been the No. 1 national goal for decades.

That goal is by now a fervent imperative in the popular Chinese mind. To abandon or appear to shrink from achieving that goal, therefore, would literally strip the leadership of the mandate to rule China.

Level-headed thinkers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait understand that if no one rocks the boat, the status quo is tenable.

So who's rocking the boat?

• Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's notion is that if he doesn't appeal strongly to those Taiwanese who favor outright independence he may lose his bid for re-election.

Chen's latest gambit, shades of California, is a national referendum. The question to appear on the coming ballot is a resolution reasonably demanding that China aim those missiles someplace else. But Beijing worries that the next initiative could be a declaration of independence.

• President Bush, whose China policy has been confused by internal bickering, distracted by the war in Iraq and, with his own bid for re-election nearing, by counterproductive expedients meant to buy votes at home.

Bush sought two years ago to please the far right by pledging to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack, which emboldened Chen's antics. In trying to win votes in manufacturing states, he's unwisely provoking a new garment trade war with China.

Remembering how badly he needs the good offices of the Chinese in dealing with North Korea, he lurched last week into a public scolding of Chen, while continuing to increase arms sales to Taiwan.

What a mess.

Serious people realize there's a lot more at stake here than some politician's re-election or a party's hold on power.