Golden Opportunity

January 31, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post on January 31, 2008.

The Kuomintang’s decisive victory over the proindependence Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s recent elections creates the best opportunity in many years to reduce tensions with the mainland. If that momentum is to be continued, though, the ball is now in Beijing’s court. It needs to make some conciliatory gestures to Taiwan’s new, more moderate leadership.

First, and most important, Beijing needs to freeze its deployment of missiles aimed at Taiwan. It has already deployed more than 1,000 missiles and continues to add more than a dozen per month. Even Taiwanese who are not independence firebrands regard those deployments as profoundly threatening.

With such a large number of missiles already in place, Beijing gains little further military clout by boosting the total. Ideally, it should begin to withdraw some but, at the very least, President Hu Jintao should announce a freeze as a goodwill gesture.

Such a freeze might advance another policy objective — getting the US to halt further arms sales to Taiwan. Mainland officials are fond of quoting the communiqué signed by president Ronald Reagan in 1982 in which the US pledged to reduce and eventually eliminate those sales. They conveniently ignore the context of that pledge — namely, that Beijing was committed to settling the Taiwan issue by peaceful means. An ongoing, massive build‐​up of missiles is clearly inconsistent with that commitment.

A second conciliatory step Beijing should take is to stop its strategy of diplomatic strangulation against Taiwan. Over the decades, the Republic of China (Taiwan’s formal name) has seen the number of countries that maintain diplomatic relations with it steadily dwindle. The huge blow came in 1979, when the US switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Nevertheless, as recently as the mid‐​1990s, some 30 mostly small and poor countries in Africa and the Caribbean retained relations with Taipei. Beijing has steadily bought off such governments; Taiwan’s diplomatic partners are now down to 23, after Malawi broke ties this month.

The diplomatic strangulation strategy was at least understandable when the DPP government of President Chen Shui‐​bian repeatedly provoked Beijing over the issue of independence. Mainland officials wanted to send a message that such conduct was counterproductive and would merely increase Taiwan’s isolation. That policy makes far less sense with a KMT government committed to maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and seeking friendlier ties. Beijing must avoid antagonising moderate Taiwanese and driving them back into the arms of the DPP.

That same sense of caution should lead Beijing to take a third step — giving Taiwan more latitude to join international organisations. In particular, it should drop its opposition to Taiwan becoming a member of the World Health Organisation. Unfortunately, Beijing objects to even observer status in the WHO. Aside from being politically shortsighted, that obstructionism is a mistake on another level. With the danger of epidemics in the modern, interconnected world, excluding any major population centre from participation in the WHO is unwise.

If Beijing fails to make meaningful conciliatory gestures, it is likely to convince the Taiwanese people that there is no benefit in adopting more moderate, cautious policies. It will have squandered an opportunity to dramatically reduce tensions and to entice Taiwan to at least consider the possibility of reunification in the long term. Beijing may then have to confront a new DPP government in a few years that will be even more committed to achieving permanent independence from the mainland.

Washington should encourage mainland leaders to be more flexible and accommodating. Because of its implied commitment to defend Taiwan, the US has a vested interest in promoting a reduction in cross‐​strait tensions. Taiwanese voters have indicated that they want such a reduction. It is now up to Beijing to show whether it is serious about that goal as well.

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