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Taiwan's inconvenient democracy
By Daniel Sneider

(Used by permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)

US conservatives have become apoplectic at the sight of President George W Bush standing next to the premier of communist China last week and slapping down the democratically elected leader of Taiwan. In the midst of an escalating controversy over Taiwan's future status, Bush very clearly sided with China.

Bush opposed Taiwan's plan to hold a referendum on the removal of Chinese missiles threatening the island - which he implied would be a de-facto vote on independence, although Taiwan denies that charge. US critics see Bush's stance as the "appeasement of a dictatorship" and a betrayal of America's commitment to democracy. That view holds that the United States is tilting toward China because of its preoccupation with Iraq and the need for China's support in dealing with North Korea's threat to go nuclear.

I share much of that sentiment. The United States is blatantly interfering in Taiwan's democratic process, and it is doing so largely at the urging of Beijing. While there is no clear tradeoff, the Bush administration is now overly dependent on China to pressure North Korea.

With his comments last week, the president was trying to clean up a mess that he, in part, created. The White House - not wrongly - believes Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has played a reckless game of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in a desperate attempt to shore up his sagging hopes for re-election in March. But Chen has been getting confusing signals from the Bush administration. Now, in trying to rein in Chen, Bush has committed himself to language that upsets a delicate policy, which has been in place since the late US president Richard Nixon made the opening to communist China in 1972.

Put simply, the US "acknowledged" that there is "one China", of which Taiwan is a part, but insisted that any cross-Strait disputes must be resolved peacefully. The United States established diplomatic relations with China but kept de-facto ties to Taiwan, including military links. While the US has defended Taiwan against Chinese threats to reunify by force, it has repeatedly said it "does not support" the independence of Taiwan. However, it also has refused to adopt tougher language that China favors, saying that it "opposes" independence.

The one-China policy has come under increasing stress as Taiwan has become a vibrant democracy. Pro-independence politicians have gained power from the Nationalists (Kuomintang, or KMT), who fled the mainland in 1949 but still claimed to represent the one China.

Tensions rose during the 2000 Taiwan elections when Beijing threatened dire consequences if Chen won. That line backfired and actually helped Chen win. This time Beijing has kept quiet, hopeful that the KMT-backed candidate would win. But Chen has narrowed the race in recent months by talking tough about Taiwan's status. China responded by asking the Bush administration to curb the Taiwanese. The White House obliged, even sending a secret envoy last week to try to dissuade Chen.

The Taiwanese president didn't budge - but he can be forgiven for being confused. When Bush came to office, he immediately signaled a readiness to embrace Taiwan, warning that the US would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan and offering to sell advanced weapons to the island.

Taiwanese officials, who used to sneak into the US for visits, were treated with greater respect. Last month, Chen got unprecedented treatment during a "transit" through New York, which included meetings with Bush administration officials and full access to the press. Therese Shaheen, the Washington representative of the American Institute in Taiwan, a semi-official post, reportedly told Chen that Bush was his "secret guardian angel". All of that played well back home and created the impression that Washington was backing his candidacy.

Then Bush, in an attempt to correct this situation, went significantly beyond earlier US policy toward Taiwan. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Bush had reiterated US "opposition to Taiwan independence" in their meeting, Bush said nothing. That may be because, according to sources within the administration, the president had used similar language in private with Chinese leaders on at least two previous occasions, most recently in October.

The message to Chen is now clear. But he has his own re-election to think about. Washington and Beijing may not like that, but after all, isn't that what democracy is all about?

Daniel Sneider ( is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. This article is used by permission of Pacific Forum CSIS.

Dec 17, 2003

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