March 2, 2006

March 2, 2006 | Commentary on Asia

Chen Lets Off Steam

It's fashionable in some quarters to suggest that the Bush administration is exasperated with Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's supposed attempts to "provoke" China. And that Monday's announcement that a cross-strait reunification body known as the National Unification Council "will cease to function" has caused further anger in Washington.


The truth is rather different. The prevailing sentiment in the Bush Administration is to sympathize with President Chen's frustration that, after six years of policy concessions and diplomatic outreach to Beijing, he has gotten nothing in return. People in the administration working on China say that Monday's symbolic decision -- the council is not being formally disbanded and, in any case, for all practical purposes ceased to function many years ago -- "has not happened in a vacuum." In particular, they point to last year's enactment of China's anti-secession law, mandating the use of force to take the island, and the luring of Taiwan opposition leaders Lien Chan and James Soong to the mainland on high-profile visits designed to isolate President Chen.

"China surrounds this guy and is closing in on the last piece of metaphysical territory he controls," one told me. "They try to isolate him and beat him down. What do they expect?" Add in Beijing's military buildup, with an estimated 800 ballistic missiles now targeted against the island, and its relentless efforts to deny Taiwan any access to international bodies -- even over matters of life and death, such as a possible avian flu outbreak -- and it's clear which side the provocations are really coming from. Beijing "can't constantly increase the pressure on someone and not expect it to blow," said one China-watcher in the Bush administration.

It's not just the White House that understands President Chen's dilemma. He is caught between unbearable pressure from Beijing -- aided by the pro-China Kuomintang and People First Party in Taiwan -- and pro-independence forces within his own Democratic Progressive Party, as well as the avowedly pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union. Within that context, President Chen has steered a clever path, making repeated concessions to allay any concerns Washington might have initially had about Monday's move.

Two U.S. envoys -- reliably reported in the Taiwan press to be National Security Council Asia specialist Dennis Wilder and the State Department's chief Taiwan staffer, Clifford Hart -- flew to Taiwan for six hours of talks with President Chen last week. They returned convinced by his argument that the decision on the National Unification Council was of no practical consequence. Established by the Kuomintang in 1990, the council has not met since 1999 and has an annual budget of just $33.45. President Chen was even prepared to compromise on the wording of Monday's announcement. Washington had frowned upon the use of the Chinese terms for "scrap" (feichu) or "abolish" (tingzhi), to describe the fate of the already moribund body. But the decision instead to announce that the council would simply "cease" (zhongzhi) to function sounded more like a mere suspension of its work and was something the Bush administration could live with.

Moreover, President Chen made hand-over-heart promises that there would be no niggling with the so-called "Four No's," his pledges in both his 2000 and 2004 inaugural addresses not to change Taiwan's official name, flag or constitution, or even hold a referendum on these matters. At a Monday evening press conference in Taipei, these four pledges were reiterated by Taiwan's three top foreign policy officials, Presidential Office Chief of Staff Mark Chen, Foreign Minister James Huang and National Security Council Secretary General Chiou I-jen -- a move immediately welcomed by the White House. The U.S. State Department was equally positive. "President Chen has said he is committed to the status quo, he is not changing the status quo and he is committed to his inaugural pledges," said spokesman Adam Ereli during Monday's press briefing.

That won't, of course, stop Taiwan's pro-China politicians from trying to cause trouble over the issue. They risk seeing one of their most important cards -- the charge that Mr. Chen is "jeopardizing Taiwan's ties with its most important ally" -- undermined by Washington's relaxed reaction to Monday's announcement. No wonder then that opposition leaders are already trying to stir up controversy by calling for a symbolic "recall" vote in the Legislative Yuan and threatening a mass demonstration on March 12. The possibility this could degenerate into the same sort of violence seen during the protests that followed President Chen's narrow re-election in March 2004 cannot be ruled out, and the Bush administration would be well-advised to prepare for this eventuality. But hopefully reason will prevail, and Taiwan's pro-China politicians will realize that such an overreaction is unlikely to gain them support among Taiwan's voters or any sympathy in Washington -- where it would only cast doubt on the opposition parties' commitment to democracy and rule of law.

Beijing too is likely to rattle its sabers a bit more loudly in the coming weeks. An editorial in yesterday's China Daily warned that President Chen's actions "will no doubt stoke tensions and trigger a serious crisis" and the official Xinhua news agency alluded vaguely to a looming "disaster." But, like other official reactions to Monday's announcement, it stopped short of making any specific threats. That's most likely, at least in part, because Beijing realizes that overreacting to a move the U.S. has already accepted could jeopardize the reception Chinese President Hu Jintao receives in April, when he pays his first official visit to Washington.

As for the Bush administration, there are far more important issues on the U.S.-Taiwan agenda than the "cessation of functions" of a moribund council. There is talk of a free-trade agreement, a bilateral taxation understanding and a multilateral working group on intellectual-property violations that needs attention. Given a few weeks of quiet, Washington and Taipei can turn their attention to these issues -- and Taipei will once again have a chance to show that it is a more reliable and valuable U.S. partner in Asia than Beijing will ever be.

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.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in The Wall Street Journal (Asia)