Trouble in Taiwan

STRAIT TALK

On December 9, 2003, in the presence of visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, President George W. Bush broke significant new ground in U.S. relations with China and Taiwan. Having pledged in April 2001 to do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself, Bush changed tack, reaffirming U.S. support for maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Of even greater significance, he rebuked Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, stating that "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."

Bush's volte-face was prompted by moves by Chen in the run-up to Taiwan's March 2004 presidential election. Chen is pushing for an unprecedented public referendum that would condemn China's growing missile threat and its refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. He has also proposed a new constitution to replace the version used by the island since the 1940s. The Chinese government believes that Chen's proposals would move Taiwan much closer to permanent separation from the mainland, and so Beijing has threatened coercive measures to prevent such an outcome. This scenario would almost certainly lead to a confrontation with the United States, possibly involving armed conflict.

Although Wen and other senior Chinese officials have expressed appreciation for Bush's words and have moderated their reaction to Chen's proposals, the situation is by no means under control. Chen continues to downplay Bush's efforts to restrain him, claiming that he is advancing the democratic cause and strengthening Taiwan's ability to resist Chinese intimidation. These arguments have received a sympathetic hearing from some conservatives and liberals in the U.S. Congress, who were enraged by Bush's rebuke and argue that Washington has a moral obligation to endorse Chen's call for national plebiscites and a new constitution. Some critics even advocate ignoring China's concerns over Taiwan altogether, abandoning support for the "one China" policy (the view that Taiwan is a part of China), and endorsing Taiwan's right to self-determination, thus compelling Beijing to accept the reality of Taiwanese independence.

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