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Status Quo Best for China, Taiwan


The New York Times, Dec. 8, 2003

The ambiguous relationship between mainland China and Taiwan serves both sides. Taiwan's 23 million people enjoy one of Asia's liveliest democracies and highest living standards. Despite living in the shadow of a nuclear power that claims ultimate sovereignty over their island, the Taiwanese run their own affairs. Meanwhile, most of the world officially recognizes Beijing's claim to be the government of all China. The highly nationalistic Communists can claim that Taiwan has not broken away and that the dream of reunification remains intact. China also benefits from billions of dollars in Taiwanese investments.

In a rational world, this arrangement should simply be left alone, with leaders on both sides minimizing public discussion of it. Taiwanese politicians should resist pressures to define it more precisely, a step that would provoke ugly military threats from the mainland. Mainland politicians should squelch the temptation to make such bellicose threats, which diminish China's reputation and turn increasing numbers of Taiwanese against reunification.

Unfortunately, such a rational approach has not taken hold. Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, who made his name advocating Taiwanese independence, has been stirring up passions on the status issue as he seeks re-election next March. He has been promoting a constitutional referendum that could, at least theoretically, lead to changes in Taiwan's declared status. China's new leaders, though more sophisticated on international issues than their predecessors, have responded with threats and have sought America's help in thwarting the referendum idea. Although Taiwan's opposition parties diluted the referendum legislation, Chen has announced plans for a vote, coinciding with the presidential election, to demand that China remove missiles targeted at Taiwan and renounce using force against the island. Putting these issues to a vote would be gratuitously provocative.

China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, is due in Washington this week. Taiwan is likely to be high on his agenda. America should remind Chen that it does not support Taiwan's independence or unilateral changes in its status. The autonomy Taiwan enjoys would not have been possible and would not survive without America's protection. In return, Washington is entitled to demand rhetorical restraint on these symbolic but ultimately inconsequential issues. Wen must understand the other part of longstanding U.S. policy: Washington will not accept any use of force by Beijing to resolve the Taiwan issue.