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The difficult trilateral relationship between Taiwan, China and the USA

By Chin Jin - posted Wednesday, 4 February 2004

After China’s 1946-49 civil war, the Taiwan Straits separated the two Chinese regimes for more than half a century, with the Communists in power on the mainland and defeated Nationalists in Taiwan. Lee Tenghui, who became President of the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan) 1988-2000 following the sudden death of his predecessor, started a long march towards independence. Born and bred in Taiwan, as President of the Republic of China Lee Tenghui not only paved the way for Taiwanese independence but also helped Chen Shui-bian, a new political star of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to carry on this unfinished task. Lee once told a Japanese journalist that he was never aware of being a Chinese prior to age of 21 - Lee had a closer inclination to Japan than to China.

Taiwan is militarily weaker, with its limited territory and small population of 22 million, but its democratic polity, well-developed economy and public harmony mean it is not outclassed in the political match with China. Unfortunately, narrow-minded and short-sighted Taiwanese leaders, both Lee Tenghui and Chen Shui-bian, have simply relied on support from Uncle Sam and been content to exercise sovereignty over a part of country. They preferred an unwise money-oriented policy and pursued short-lived diplomatic recognition.

Taiwan underwent a democratic transition as democratic waves swept the globe and autocracy declined. Remaining politically autocratic and stagnant, China, despite its economic progress and heightened military and national strengths, is still far from such a rapid rise. On the contrary, the possibility of its sudden collapse is more and more likely because of its autocracy and corruption. The presence of the US 7th Fleet in the Taiwan Straits was a hindrance to the “liberation of Taiwan” by China following the Korean War. As time went on, the opportunity to retake Taiwan by force became more and more slim, which encouraged Presidents Li and Chen, both Taiwan born and bred, to be bolder and bolder. In the current election campaign, rhetoric of “Two States”, “One Side, One Country” and “referendum” can be heard.


China is a territorially huge state inherited from Qing Dynasty. But following their ascent to power in 1949, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders had been always generous in conceding territories to its neighbouring countries such as Burma and India in the South border and Russia in the North border, and indifferent to the Japanese occupation of Diaoyu Island. Before paying state visit to the USA last year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned the Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian that the CCP government would pay any cost to safeguard its sacred territory, Taiwan. This proclamation was a symbolic gesture, showing off to its brainwashed, nationalistic people how strongly the CCP would defend their motherland.

In its post-WWII role as policeman and leader of free world in contending with the former Soviet Union, the US alternately adopted chivalry and bullying in dealing with world affairs. On the whole, its positive role in easing international conflict and safeguarding the world peace benefitted all but its embodiment of democratic values is often not as obvious as its pursuit of self-interest, which incurs distrust. For example, during the last Taiwanese presidential elections, with China seeking to influence the result by exerting military menace, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher said not that the US, as a democratic state, had a responsibility to protect the democracy in Taiwan, but that the US had the “interests” in the region. Nevertheless, the ensuing resolution of international disputes embodied Western human rights values, which received significant appreciation, especially in pushing the new doctrine of “Human right surpassing sovereignty” in solving the Kosovo crisis.

As the Taiwanese Presidential election of 2004 is approaching, President Chen Shui-bian of DPP is pushing for a referendum on independence, which is regarded a crucial step for the Taiwanese. Mainland Chinese leaders have reacted with harsh language and demanded that the US exert pressure on Taiwan. The Bush Administration changed its formerly ambiguous approach by declaring its opposition rather than non-supportiveness. They opposed China’s military action and, at the same time, opposed any unilateral change of status quo in Taiwan. The US has a clear stake in maintaining the current status quo, which is in its best national interests. They desperately need help from China to solve the problem in Korean Peninsula and it is believed that Chen Shui-bian’s strategy of irritating China for winning the 2004 presidential re-election campaign did not help them.

Retaking Taiwan had been always been in the minds of Chinese leaders, who had been perplexed by how to achieve the goal. Militarily, mainland China has the upper hand but Taiwan is politically stronger following substantial recent changes in the world political landscape. Taiwan is effectively but intangibly protected as a member of the world’s democratic family, while mainland China is more isolated as former allies turn to democracy. The US may be annoyed by the rhetoric of Taiwanese independence but will not sit and watch if China attacks Taiwan. War in the Taiwan Strait would undoubtedly be won by the US and the Chinese leaders should be fully aware of the real situation and not be so irrational to launch such a war. Therefore, a war to retake Taiwan is unlikely because of the powerful deterrence of US military strength.

If Chen Shui-bian regards the referendum as an opportunity to break the deadlock for independence, it may drive China into corner, place Taiwan itself at risk and also put the US in a dilemma. The US opposed unilateral change of the status quo by Taiwanese leaders but if 22 million Taiwanese choose independence via referendum, that opposition would gravely test US principles. It would greatly tarnish the US image to maintain opposition to a democratic Taiwanese choice, so neither the US nor China wants to see this move by Taiwan.

For Taiwan, independence could either invite an attack from China or set Taiwan free. For China, this move could be an opportunity to retake Taiwan without US intervention or incur defeat if the US intervenes. This will be a test of determination, tactics and capability for leaders of both sides.

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About the Author

Dr Chin Jin is a maverick, activist, campaigner, essayist, freelancer, researcher and organizer with the vision to foresee a new post-Chinese Communist regime era that will present more cooperatively, more constructively and more appropriately to the Asia Pacific region and even the world.

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