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The cross-Strait political tinderbox
By Craig Meer and Macabe Keliher

TAIPEI - War is not simply a game of strategic chess, in which beligerents back their interests with military capability. It can be very much, as the Prussian military philospher Carl von Clausewitz said, politics by other means. The reason for war is turned on its head to become a question of the "opportunity cost of doing nothing". That is to say, sometimes compliance with a foe's demand is worse than any conflict, no matter what the odds of winning - remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, after the United States imposed an oil embargo on Japan.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan have long cultivated a relationship in which they oblige each other to respond to statements and events in an antagonistic or threatening manner. But the evolution of the status quo into a non-binding version of diametrically opposed positions - "one China" or Taiwanese independence - has pushed each side into a corner from which a violent clawing out may be the only plausible option. To do otherwise, and to acquiesce with the adversary across the Strait, would necessitate putting up with a state of affairs (ie, maintaining a version of the uneasy peace) that is ultimately intolerable by each side's own respective standards of national success and failure.

The view from Beijing
In the view from China, Beijing is holding steadfast to the idea that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory, of which all belongs to the PRC. Perceivable differences between the presidencies of Hu Jintao and his predecessors Jiang Zeming and Deng Xiaoping on the Taiwan question are subsumed beneath an essential unity of purpose that is as old as the PRC itself - dating from 1949.

This thinking is represented most vividly in Beijing's diplomatic and military posture toward the island. Because of pressure from Beijing, only 27 countries now have formal relations with Taiwan, and "Chinese Taipei" is represented as a sovereign entity in a mere handful of international institutions, and none of the major ones, such as the United Nations and its agencies.

Furthermore, Beijing currently has an estimated 500 ballistic missiles - 496 according to intelligence estimates - deployed and targeted at Taiwan, and about 75 are added each year in bases along China's southeast coast.

As the Chinese population is beginning to think less along the lines prescribed by the government and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and more for itself (see Who cares about Taiwan? Not the Chinese, December 23, 2003), any backing down by the party on the Taiwan question could show signs of weak leadership.

Therefore, the cost to Beijing of not acting - as Taiwan moves closer to independence - would be catastrophic. The CCP would face serious internal challenges to its monopoly on power on the mainland, and such opposition would in all likelihood be far less benign than the democracy movement of the late 1980s. Furthermore, the People's Liberation Army has not only been preparing itself for a showdown with Taiwan, but derives its authority and bureaucratic power from the issue of reunification. The PLA would be far from a willing spectator at the birth of a Taiwanese republic.

More dramatically, however, an election and larger political loss to Taiwan to independence forces could give momentum to other separatist movements within China, perhaps encouraging the ultimate breakup of the country along the lines of the former Soviet Union, or of China's own feudal and not so distant past. Warlordism has a long history and recent manifestations in China, and the loss of Taiwan could encourage disaffected separatist groups in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and other provinces and regions. The center's grip on far-flung regional China is increasingly tenuous, as demonstrated by last year's crisis over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), when inter-government cooperation failed even when unquestionably beneficial to the nation as a whole.

The view from Taipei
The view from Taipei is in stark contrast. After more than two decades of democratization, the island is no longer home to a serious debate about reunification with the mainland. Local politicians must now appeal to a constituency that is extremely proud and protective of its de facto independence. All major political parties on the island, including the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the aspiring former governing Kuomintang (KMT), espouse views on cross-Strait relations that are a variation on the independence theme, rather than an alternative to it.

While most Taiwanese people stop short of demanding formal, de jure independence from mainland China, about 70 percent prefer a continuation of the status quo, according to polling. This position is irrespective of the widely held view in Taiwan and elsewhere that changing geopolitical realities - the end of the Cold War, China's growing economic power, and US preoccupation with the "war on terror" - will probably make the status quo impossible to maintain forever.

In light of this political environment, a decision by the island's elites not to defend Taiwan's current autonomy from Beijing's overtures or machinations would have immediate and deleterious consequences. To begin with, any acquiescent leadership in Taipei would almost certainly suffer a sharp loss of popular support for what some describe as "selling out" to Beijing. The only political party in Taiwan that still openly declares its support for mainland reunification, for instance, is the New Party, which holds but one seat in the Legislative Yuan, from a peak of 14 in the mid-1990s.

In Taiwan's current presidential race, the "unification-leaning" ticket of the KMT's Lien Chan and vice-presidential nominee James Soong of the People First Party (PFP) is on the back foot when campaigning on the cross-Strait issue. As demonstrated in recent televised debates, Lien Chan has opted to dodge rather than challenge incumbent President Chen of the DPP on his crusade for a referendum on cross-Strait ties and defense, concurrent with the poll on March 20.

Furthermore, failing to safeguard Taiwan's current autonomy could tear apart the delicate political compromise that underpins the island's democracy - ie, that the local population should be the first, last and constant concern of government policy. Any effort to undermine this unspoken but widely acknowledged pact, deliberate or inadvertent, would encounter stiff political and social resistance.

In the Taiwan Strait, the opportunity cost of peace has become extraordinarily high for both China and Taiwan. While armed conflict is still very much avoidable, the shrill and uncompromising voices coming out of Beijing and Taipei are far from politics as usual. On the contrary, they may truly indicate just how bad things really are.

Craig Meer is a post-doctoral fellow at Academia Sinica. Macabe Keliher is an independent historian and journalist, and a regular contributor to Asia Times Online. His website is

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Mar 13, 2004

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