The wretched China-Taiwan question pops up from time to time, with the latest being a secret message from the Taiwanese leader, President Chen Shui Bian to his mainland counterpart Hu Jintao. This alleged secret meesage follows almost immediately the recent visit to Beijing by Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang Party deputy leader Chiang Pin Kung.
However, James Soong leader of Taiwan's second opposition party the PFP, who will be making the trip to Beijing denied that he was Chen's special envoy carrying any secret missive to Hu Jintao. But what is clear from Soong is that Chen has now agreed to maintain the status quo in Taiwan, and not push for the island's formal independence. This would appear to be good news for the stability of the region.
For years until Chen became President, the two ‘Chinas’ have agreed that there is only ‘One China’, a policy to which the world, including the USA, subscribes.
Unlike previous Taiwanese leaders, Chen considers himself Taiwanese, one without any emotional attachment to the ‘Mother’ (main) land. He is also realistic enough to know that the Taiwanese side won’t have a snowflake’s chance in hell of repossessing mainland China. If any repossessing is to take place, Taiwan will be on the losing side.
He is also chafing at the reins the ‘One China’ policy has in practice restricted Taiwan’s place in the global community – for example, Taiwan is not a member of international organisations and agencies that mainland China is. He wants Taiwan to break free as an independent nation so that she may enjoy what has been denied to her for so long. But the USA support is vital.
Chen assessed that under US President Bush and his neo-con dominated Administration, he has the best possible chance to achieve this political intention. So he has been pushing provocations to the limit by uttering the taboo word – secession euphemised as independence – and attempting to hold referendums to decide on the issue.
The aim has been to draw the USA into the fray, military or otherwise, so that Taiwan could possibly get away with it when the opportunity arises. Chen is banking on the support of American neo-cons and Christian Right, who consider China as Big Satan, to lobby President Bush. But the USA is extremely wary of getting into a second war with China, this time a nuclear power, especially when there is a pro-China lobby in the shape of American big businesses. The USA has warned Taiwan that America will not intervene in any Chinese attack if the Island initiates the provocation. Perhaps this may explain in part Chen's (temporary?) retreat from his regular calls for Taiwan's independence.
China has of course employed the usual threats, verbal as well as holding war games next to the Island, against such a move, and even passing a law recently to legitimise her recovery of the Island should the Taiwanese have the impunity to secede unilaterally.
I think China is more worried of the precedent a breakaway Taiwan will have on provinces such as Tibet and her north-west regions, and believe she will eventually let Taiwan go her way, as observed in her recent softening stand in agreeing to Taiwan joining the World Health Organisation. She knows that the reunion of Taiwan with China is realistically unlikely. She wants to consolidate her control on the ‘difficult’ regions before she relinquishes the Taiwanese claim forever.
When? Full independence seems unlikely in the next 10 years, but we may expect a gradual loosening of the political strings that will allow Taiwan to participate more and more in international forums as a recognised political entity.
But then, I wouldn't put it past Chen to pull a mischievous one during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, to catch China in the difficult and diplomatically most vulnerable position. Will China be willing to sacrifice even the prestigious Games to go on the warpath against a seceding Taiwan.
My bet is yes - prestige or no prestige, Beijing will, as the stakes for her (of not threatening or even militarily harrassing a seceding Taiwan) will then be far higher than the benefits and halo effect of the Games.