Golden Opportunity

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

The Kuomintang's decisive victory over the proindependenceDemocratic Progressive Party in Taiwan'srecent elections creates the best opportunity in manyyears to reduce tensions with the mainland. If thatmomentum is to be continued, though, the ball is now inBeijing's court. It needs to make some conciliatory gestures toTaiwan's new, more moderate leadership.

First, and most important, Beijing needs to freeze itsdeployment of missiles aimed at Taiwan. It has already deployedmore than 1,000 missiles and continues to add more than a dozenper month. Even Taiwanese who are not independence firebrandsregard those deployments as profoundly threatening.

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

Such a freeze might advance another policy objective — gettingthe US to halt further arms sales to Taiwan. Mainland officials arefond of quoting the communiqué signed by president RonaldReagan in 1982 in which the US pledged to reduce and eventuallyeliminate those sales. They conveniently ignore the context of thatpledge — namely, that Beijing was committed to settling theTaiwan issue by peaceful means. An ongoing, massive build-up ofmissiles is clearly inconsistent with that commitment.

A second conciliatory step Beijing should take is to stop itsstrategy of diplomatic strangulation against Taiwan. Over thedecades, the Republic of China (Taiwan's formal name) has seenthe number of countries that maintain diplomatic relations with itsteadily dwindle. The huge blow came in 1979, when the USswitched recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Nevertheless, asrecently as the mid-1990s, some 30 mostly small and poorcountries in Africa and the Caribbeanretained relations with Taipei. Beijinghas steadily bought off suchgovernments; Taiwan's diplomaticpartners are now down to 23, afterMalawi broke ties this month.

The diplomatic strangulationstrategy was at least understandablewhen the DPP government ofPresident Chen Shui-bian repeatedlyprovoked Beijing over the issue ofindependence. Mainland officialswanted to send a message that suchconduct was counterproductive andwould merely increase Taiwan'sisolation. That policy makes far less sense with a KMT governmentcommitted to maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait andseeking friendlier ties. Beijing must avoid antagonising moderateTaiwanese and driving them back into the arms of the DPP.

That same sense of caution should lead Beijing to take a thirdstep — giving Taiwan more latitude to join internationalorganisations. In particular, it should drop its opposition toTaiwan 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 amistake on another level. With the danger of epidemics in themodern, interconnected world, excluding any major populationcentre from participation in the WHO is unwise.

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

Washington should encourage mainland leaders to be moreflexible and accommodating. Because of its implied commitmentto defend Taiwan, the US has a vested interest in promoting areduction in cross-strait tensions. Taiwanese voters have indicatedthat they want such a reduction. It is now up to Beijing to showwhether it is serious about that goal as well.