Commentary

The Pressure Cooker Heats Up

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post, January 11, 2006..
A relatively quiet period in relations between Taiwan and mainland China came to an abrupt end with Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian’s New Year speech. It was a strident, assertive address that extolled the virtues of “Taiwanese consciousness” and expressed a determination to defend the island’s security at all costs.

There was not an olive branch to Beijing in sight. Those policymakers in Washington who had anticipated a bland, conciliatory speech were caught off guard.

Mr. Chen emphasized that “no matter how cross-strait relations develop”, his government would adhere to the four principles of “sovereignty, democracy, peace and parity”. The first and last of those principles are anathema to Beijing, as is Mr Chen’s assertion that only the 23 million people of Taiwan have the right to decide the island’s future.

Many of these themes were not new, but Mr. Chen presented them in unusually terse and uncompromising language. Moreover, his assessment of Beijing’s policy was especially confrontational. Highlighting the mainland’s deployment of missiles across the strait from Taiwan (which he said now totaled 784), he accused Beijing of engaging in an overall military buildup that “exceeds the reasonable scope of its defense needs”.

Mr. Chen’s address increases the likelihood that cross-strait tensions will rise significantly during the rest of his term in office. That highlights a disturbing trend in relations between the two that has been building for more than a decade. It poses serious dangers not only to those two parties but to Taiwan’s protector, the United States, as well.

Separatist sentiments are growing in Taiwan - especially among younger Taiwanese. To them, the mainland is an alien country. A vibrant, distinct society has grown up on Taiwan, and many Taiwanese point out that their island has been ruled from Beijing for only four of the last 111 years - and the government in question was not communist.

True, the bulk of the Taiwanese business community favors close ties with the mainland. That faction is an important force for caution and restraint, helping to counteract the influence of the pro-independence faction. But the overall trend seems clear: many public-opinion surveys show that very few Taiwanese are interested in reunification with a communist mainland. A growing number may not be interested even if the mainland someday becomes democratic.

At the very least, there is a broad consensus in favor of the island’s current de facto independence, and most Taiwanese want some form of political recognition from the international community. Mr. Chen clearly sought to appeal to that sense of a distinct Taiwanese identity in his New Year address.

At the same time that separatist attitudes on Taiwan have become stronger, the determination of the mainland to recover what it views as a renegade province has also increased. As Taiwan has democratized and accelerated its quest for international recognition, Beijing has become noticeably less sanguine.

The US is at a precarious point in its Taiwan policy. “For the decade ahead, we need to keep the lid on the pressure cooker,” said one high-ranking US official.

Unless significant policy changes take place in Taipei, Beijing or Washington, a collision course is all too probable.

It is an immense tragedy just waiting to happen.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.