Cold Shower in Taiwan

14 October 2004

Cold Shower in Taiwan

By Gwynne Dyer

The rhetoric had been getting harsher for months, as Taiwan’s leaders stoked popular fears of Communist China’s intentions in an attempt to push through a controversial $18 billion arms purchase from the United States. It reached a peak on 30 September, when President Chen Sui-bian warned that the People’s Liberation Army now has 610 ballistic missiles aimed at the island, with the number forecast to 800 by next year — enough to wipe out most of Taiwan’s defences in a few hours.

Prime Minister Yu Shyi-kun went further, calling for Taiwan to develop its own offensive missiles to deter a Communist attack. “You fire a hundred missiles at me, I fire fifty at you. You hit Taipei and Kaohsiung (Taiwan’s main cities), I at least hit Shanghai. If we have such a counter-strike capability, Taiwan is safe.”

Blood-curdling stuff, even if none of the warheads on those missiles would be nuclear. (Nobody believes that Chinese would use nuclear weapons on other Chinese.) The People’s Republic reacted with fury to the suggestion that Taiwan might make a retaliatory strike against cities on the mainland: “Yu Shyi-kun’s remarks are a serious provocation and clamouring for war,” said Li Weiyi, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing.

President Hu Jintao, newly confirmed as commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army, told it to prepare for war — “You must seize the moment and do a good job of preparing for a military struggle” — and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, speaking at the United Nations, warned that “The separatist activities of the Taiwanese authorities pose a serious threat…to the peace of the Asia-Pacific region.”

The US, preoccupied with Iraq and the elections, made virtually no response to China’s threats, but various countries in the region had been warning Taiwan for months that if it got into a shooting war with China, it was on its own. As early as August Singapore’s leader, Lee Hsien Loong, warned of “a real risk of miscalculation and mishap….Unfortunately, very few Taiwanese leaders understand this.”

They certainly didn’t seem to — Taiwan’s foreign minister, Chen Tan-sun, responded to Singapore’s warning by accusing it of “hugging China’s balls” — but by late September the message was starting to get through. The Taiwan defence ministry back-pedalled rapidly on Prime Minister Yu’s talk of firing missiles at Shanghai, denying any intention of creating a “balance of terror” with the mainland. And then, on 10 October, Taiwan’s National Day, President Chen Shui-bian, went into reverse on all fronts.

He praised China’s reforms, welcomed the new leadership in Beijing, and called for an arms control agreement between the two governments to dispel the “dark forces” that were gathering in the Taiwan Strait. More dramatically, he said that he was ready to resume the political dialogue between Taipei and Beijing, dormant for five years because of the pro-independence stance of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — and that he was willing to do so on the very basis that he had always rejected in the past.

When Taiwan and China first opened direct talks in 1993, the Nationalist Party was still in power in Taipei, and it had no objection to carrying out negotiations on the basis that there might be two rival regimes at the moment, but there was only “one China.” The Nationalists had retreated to Taiwan after losing China’s civil war in 1949, but they were as determined as the Communists that the motherland must eventually be reunited. They just differed on who should be running it.

However, the refugees from the mainland were outnumbered by the local Taiwanese, and Taiwan has been ruled from Beijing less than half the time since Chinese settlers became a majority on the island some five centuries ago. The locally born population, although overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese, felt quite distant from mainland China, and bitterly resented the dictatorship that the incoming Nationalists clamped on the island — so when Taiwan democratised in the mid-1990s, there was ample scope for a party like the DPP that advocated a complete break with China.

The first DPP president, Lee Teng-hui, caused a rupture in the talks with Beijing when he called for a “special state-to-state relationship” between Taiwan and the People’s Republic in 1999, and until now Chen Shui-bian has followed the same line. His declaration on 10 October that he is willing to resume talks on the basis of “one China” was a huge climb-down — even if he qualified it as a “not necessarily perfect but acceptable” basis for renewed dialogue.

Chen had to climb down. As China’s economy grows ever bigger, its importance to its trading partners, including the United States, makes them ever more reluctant to confront Beijing over Taiwan, and the Iraq quagmire makes Washington doubly reluctant to contemplate further military commitments in East Asia. Taiwan is on its own, and the old DPP game of talking about independence in order to get the Communists to threaten to attack Taiwan, thereby driving resentful Taiwanese voters into the DPP’s arms, is over

The more level-headed elements in the DPP never really believed that an independent and internationally recognised Taiwan republic was a possibility; now they will have to stop pretending to the voters that it is possible. The best they can hope for is a prolongation of the status quo until, some day, China democratises and reunification becomes a more palatable prospect.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“President…region”;and “However…China”)