10 December 2003

Triple Bluff over Taiwan

By Gwynne Dyer

Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian is bluffing when he hints at holding a referendum on independence from China. US President George W. Bush was bluffing three years ago when he promised to do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan, though he was serious last Tuesday when he warned Taiwan’s Chen to stop irritating the Communist regime in Beijing. But China is bluffing when it says that it will invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence.

True, the rhetoric is getting extreme. Senior Chinese military officers warn that if Chen’s supporters “refuse to come to their senses and continue to use referenda as an excuse to seek Taiwan independence, they will push Taiwan compatriots into the abyss of war.” President Chen appeals to the world not to let the Beijing regime “unilaterally decide what is peace, what is democracy, what is a threat, what is provocation.”

President Bush, after meeting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jia-bao on Tuesday, worries aloud that the Taiwanese government “may be willing unilaterally to change the status quo (by seeking formal independence), which we oppose.” It sounds almost like a real crisis, but it’s all just a charade.

President Chen’s hints about a referendum on independence are merely a ploy to win nationalist votes in next March’s presidential election, which he could easily lose. China’s sabre-rattling is reflex face-saving, and does not imply the intention or even the ability to invade Taiwan. And Mr Bush knows that the value of the US dollar would crash on the foreign exchange markets if Beijing stopped buying US Treasury securities to compensate for its enormous trade surplus with the United States, so he offers Wen some reassuring words.

All the talk of Taiwan’s independence is purely symbolic, since for practical purposes the island has been independent for the past 54 years. In deference to the powerful Chinese instinct for national unity, everybody has always denied this fact, pretending that the division of China at the end of the civil war (98.5 percent of the population to the Communists, 1.75 percent to the Nationalists) was only temporary, and that there is really only One China.

For a while Washington insisted that Chiang Kai-shek’s refugee Nationalist regime in Taiwan, and not the Communist regime in Beijing, was the legitimate government of that One China, but even that argument ended in the 1970s after Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. For a long time after that, everybody agreed in principle that China would eventually be reunited under one government in Beijing — but Taiwan and Washington made it clear that that could not happen until mainland China no longer had a Communist government, and Beijing tacitly accepted that position.

It was the breakdown of that status quo in the mid-90s that led to the current crisis. The gradual democratisation of Taiwan led to the electoral defeat of the long-ruling Nationalist Party in 1996 by the Democratic Progressive Party, which regularly plays with the notion of declaring Taiwan completely independent in order to win votes, but never actually does anything about it because neither China nor America wants to be forced into a confrontation on the issue.

President Chen, the current DPP incumbent in Taiwan, is just continuing to playing the same game. He’s not actually proposing to hold a referendum on independence in March to coincide with the next presidential election. The referendum will be an essentially meaningless exercise that asks Taiwanese voters if they want Beijing to end its missile build-up across the Taiwan Straits and promise not to invade Taiwan under any circumstances. You might as well ask them if they are in favour of motherhood.

But in Taiwan it serves as a hint to DPP supporters that one day there might be a real referendum on independence, which is probably worth a few votes. Since Beijing understands that nuance too, it is having a huge conniption about it — and Washington, which has quite enough foreign problems on its plate already, is warning Taipei to back off. But it’s all fake: Taiwan is not going to declare independence, and China is not going to invade.

Taiwan will not declare independence because the Communist government in Beijing, in order to defend its credentials as the ultimate guarantor of Chinese unity, would have to reply with a demonstration of force. It would fire missiles at Taiwan and maybe declare a submarine blockade of the island, thereby destroying confidence in both Taiwan’s economy and its own. But the missiles would not have nuclear warheads — it is unimaginable that China would use nuclear weapons on other Chinese — and Beijing simply cannot invade Taiwan.

Even if the US Seventh Fleet did not intervene to stop it (which it probably would not — the US does not want a war with China), the People’s Republic of China lacks the amphibious ships that would be needed to transport an army across over a hundred miles (kilometres) of open ocean and conquer a wealthy, well-armed island with over twenty million people. Indeed, China has never even attempted to create such a specialised maritime capability, which tells you everything you need to know about this ‘crisis’.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“President Chen…words”)