September 11 altered much in international affairs, but not fundamental anxiety over the impasse across the Taiwan Strait. In the year since writing this article, cross-Strait trends have remained highly troublesome despite initiatives that may appear on the surface to facilitate reconciliation over time.

WTO accession and leadership change in China will likely serve as a constraint on its external behavior in the near term, including over Taiwan. However, China continues to demonstrate little interest in political initiatives or a true "hearts and minds" campaign, hallmarks of a patient, peaceful approach to the issue. China continues to rigidly refuse overtures from Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for dialogue and continues to try to isolate Taiwan internationally. Although China has sought to promote closer economic relations between the two sides, it appears to view them as a lever of coercion rather than confidence building.

Meanwhile, China's military build-up opposite Taiwan, including destabilizing missile deployments, continues unabated. A U.S. Department of Defense report released in July 2002 suggests that the cross-Strait military balance is shifting steadily in favor of China, and that missile deployments and information operations in particular support an apparent strategy of coercion that may provide a credible political-military option to Chinese leaders in coming years.

In addition, social trends in Taiwan continue to work against China. A recent Taiwan television poll revealed that an increasing percentage of the Taiwan people both oppose unification and favor formal independence. At the same time, President Chen seems to be operating from a sense of short-term opportunity and longer-term insecurity. In the near term, Taiwan enjoys the most supportive U.S. administration since 1979, and a distracted China. Chen nonetheless recognizes political, military, and economic trends over the long run. As a result, Chen has taken increasing, gradual steps over the past year to assert Taiwan's independent political identity, including recent statements concerning a potential referendum on Taiwan's status. This sense of a "window of opportunity" may lead Chen to continue to test the boundaries of the possible, at best challenging China's forbearance, and at worst, endangering stability.

The United States is consumed by the global war against terrorism, and thus seeks to prevent either side from precipitating a crisis across the Strait that would distract it from this critical national security interest. However, gamesmanship continues to plague cross-Strait affairs, as each side calculates how time may or may not be on its side, and acts accordingly. The continued absence of real political vision and initiative, particularly in China, remains at the heart of the impasse and heightens the danger of miscalculation and conflict over time.

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  • Kurt M. Campbell is Senior Vice President and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Deputy Director of the Aspen Strategy Group. Derek J. Mitchell is Senior Fellow for Asia at CSIS.
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