P resident Bush seems to have finessed a
potentially explosive situation during main
land Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the White House earlier this month. But there is more delicate diplomacy ahead to keep the mainland-Taiwan situation calm. Perhaps the least dangerous course is to keep the current myths alive.
What concerns the U.S. government is the apparent determination by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to hold a referendum in March calling on the mainland government to point its ballistic missiles somewhere other than toward Taiwan. The mainland government thinks this is a step toward declaring Taiwan an independent country, although the Taiwanese deny it.
In fact, it might be — or it might be a political ploy.
In all but name, Taiwan has been an independent country for decades. But mainland China officially views Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be rejoined to the motherland, while Taiwan officially believes it is the rightful government of all of China that will someday come into its own.
Economic and tourist relations across the Straits of Formosa are increasing and could eventually lead to de facto reintegration, although the process is likely to take decades and could be derailed by a political or military crisis.
So why would Taiwan do something that could precipitate a crisis?
Chalmers Johnson, political science professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego — one of this country’s foremost experts on Asian politics — said it might be a political move. “Chen Shui-bian has been a terrible president in Taiwan and could lose the next election. He could believe that creating a crisis that will force the United States to make a show of force on Taiwan’s behalf is his best chance of holding onto power.”
That might not be a good move for the United States just now, which could be why President Bush expressed disapproval of the referendum. Not only is the U.S. military stretched thin because of the war in Iraq, but China has been helpful in trying to defuse the North Korean “maybe they have nukes” problem.
Bottom line? A crisis or confrontation is in nobody’s long-term interest, but the United States might not be able to stop Taiwan from holding its referendum. If it does, U.S. leaders will just have to say they believe Taiwan’s assurances that this is not a step toward de jure independence, and the mainland Chinese will have to pretend they believe it as well.
Sometimes in international politics, pretense is better than blurting out the truth — although it’s important for U.S. leaders to sort out pretense from reality in their private counsels.