May 14, 2005 | Commentary on Asia
To hear some in the Bush administration talk,
its now only a matter of time before Beijing does the unthinkable
and seeks a reconciliation with Chen Shui-bian, the Taiwanese
president whom they have vilified ever since he was first elected
in March 2000.
White House and State Department officials are quietly spreading word that they expect a breakthrough in cross-Strait relations in the near future. One China hand within the administration predicts that the visits to China by Lien Chan and James Soong, the leaders of Taiwan's two main opposition parties, have laid the groundwork for an initiative which will see Chinese President Hu Jintao shortly "reach out" to President Chen.
It's not clear what the basis for their confidence is, which is not born out by any recent public statements from Beijing. Instead the risk is that the optimists in Washington have fallen for an elaborate Chinese bluff, designed to defuse American objections to the Lien-Soong visits and undermine President Chen's domestic political position.
There's no doubt that the U.S. was heavily involved in preparations for the visit. Mr. Lien, chairman of the Kuomintang, conferred with Douglas Paal, America's top representative in Taipei, a few days before his April 26 departure for China. The administration's fingerprints were clearly revealed by a subsequent statement from the Kuomintang, expressing gratitude for the State Department's approbation of the trip.
President Chen's restrained attitude toward the trips -- he infuriated many of his supporters by appearing to endorse Mr. Lien's visit -- has also been widely attributed to pressure from Washington. The indications are that very senior U.S. officials persuaded the Taiwanese president to take a soft stance in return for a White House statement urging China to engage in dialogue with "the duly elected leadership in Taiwan," and a promise to deliver on this. That promise can hardly have been made in a vacuum, suggesting that Beijing has offered hints to Washington that it is rethinking its hard-line policy toward Taiwan and would be willing to have direct and unconditional talks with President Chen. Hence the current excitement in some quarters of the Bush administration.
The problem is there is no objective evidence to suggest this is likely to happen. The trips by Messrs. Lien and Soong revealed no sign of any willingness to talk to President Chen, with both opposition politicians steering clear of the subject during their meetings with President Hu. If anything, China has used the visits to harden its stance, by insisting that President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party formally renounce the section in its charter on Taiwanese independence before Beijing will agree to talk to him.
Instead Beijing is doubtless delighted that Mr. Chen's reticence has triggered a major split within the pro-independence camp in Taiwan. Even Mr. Chen's mentor, former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, has complained about his successor's low-key reaction to the Lien-Soong visits. The result has been a serious erosion of support for Mr. Chen's DPP and movement toward the radical independence forces of Mr. Lee, with a substantial chunk of Mr. Chen's voters confused about whether to support or oppose the Lien-Soong visits.
Demoralization in Mr. Chen's ruling party means that this weekend's National Assembly elections, which three weeks ago were thought to be a minor procedural exercise necessary as part of the process of amending Taiwan's constitution, have now taken on an entirely new significance. Unlike any other elections in Taiwan's history, voters in this weekend's assembly elections will cast ballots for party slates rather than individual candidates.
With Mr. Lien's Kuomintang and the People First Party headed by Mr. Soong both reinvigorated by the publicity given to the two leaders' China visits, their supporters seem set to turn out in force on Saturday. By contrast, the confusion among DPP supporters over their leadership's attitude toward the visits may cause many to either stay home, or instead cast a protest for Mr. Chen's Taiwan Solidarity Union. While Taiwan's voters may not see the National Assembly election as particularly meaningful, the results are likely to be interpreted both by Beijing and the international media as a referendum on the Lien-Soong visits. A strong showing for the opposition forces will give China all the excuse it needs to argue the "elected representatives of the people of Taiwan" that the U.S. so desperately wants Beijing to deal with, are Messrs. Lien and Soong -- and that there is no need to deal with Mr. Chen at all.
That is, of course, precisely the opposite of what Washington wants.
James R. Lilley, a former American ambassador to Beijing and top U.S. representative in Taipei, warned last year that "the landscape is strewn with the corpses of American do-gooders" who tried to mediate between warring Chinese factions. Outsiders are unfamiliar with intra-Chinese machinations and inevitably end up being manipulated by one side against the other. That was why former U.S. President Ronald Reagan had the good sense to promise then Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo in July 1982 that the U.S. would neither, "play any mediation role between Taiwan and China" nor "exert pressure on the Republic of China to enter into negotiations with the PRC."
Unfortunately the wisdom of the Reagan reassurances seems to have been lost on some of the current crop of American diplomats and career intelligence officials. Apparently misled by vague hints from Beijing that show no realistic prospect of being fulfilled, they have pressed President Chen into a position that risks weakening the political fortunes of one of Beijing's foremost foes. By hoping for a cross-Strait "breakthrough," today's generation of do-gooders have only made things worse for Taiwan's democracy.
John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal