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Sunday, December 19, 2004

NewKerala >Taiwan's voters did not want to rock the prosperity boat

Taiwan's voters did not want to rock the prosperity boat: "Taiwan's voters did not want to rock the prosperity boat:
Taiwan's voters did not want to rock the prosperity boat:

[World News]: By Daniel Sneider : Policy-makers in both Beijing and Washington are breathing a sigh of relief after Taiwan's voters embraced the status quo. Contrary to expectations, Taiwan's legislative elections did not deliver a victory to forces favouring greater separation or even independence from China.

The two main competing blocs are at a standoff in strength. So Taiwan's pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, remains checked by a parliament controlled by a coalition that will try to block any formal move in that direction.

The status quo also works for China. It keeps independence at bay. And it allows Beijing to avoid facing a decision to use force to stop it. American policy is also all about stability - not least to prevent a war in the Taiwan Strait that would almost certainly draw in the US.

"It is good news for everyone who does not like war or the use of force," Pang Zhongying, a professor of international studies at Beijing's Nankai University, said to me about the Taiwan vote. "The results of the election definitely help stabilise the highly turbulent state of cross-strait relations."

But no one is under any illusions that this moment will last for long. "The fundamental problems remain and the situation is still serious," Pang cautioned.

The best outcome would be that leaders use the breathing space to resume the frozen dialogue between China and Taiwan. Taiwan's leadership has to refrain from the kind of provocative acts that only inflame Beijing. But the burden mainly lies with China, which refuses to talk unconditionally with President Chen Shui-bian and his government.

Beijing could easily signal its readiness for a broader engagement by allowing Taiwan formal observer status or even separate membership in the World Health Organisation. It could also ease restrictions on direct cross-strait flights.

Unfortunately, this opportunity will probably be squandered. Judging from the tough talk issued Wednesday by China's influential Taiwan Affairs Office, the Chinese leadership sees this vote as a triumph for its hard-line posture. The spokesman issued yet another strident denunciation of Chen and dark warnings that China "will not sit by idly" in response to any steps in the direction of independence.

The Chinese rely on the US to slap down Chen, and the Bush administration has been ready to send those messages to Taipei. But American officials are also deeply concerned by the increasing militarisation of China's approach. They point to the rapid modernization of China's armed forces, the acquisition of weapons systems that have no conceivable purpose other than against Taiwan.

Even without a military conflict, the Chinese need to rethink their belief that the status quo inevitably works in their favour. Some Chinese analysts argue that the growing intertwining of Taiwan's economy with that of the mainland will eventually lead to political unification.

"Economic integration is promoting a de facto reunification, or at least interdependence rather than independence," says Pang. But the results of this election - as well as the narrow re-election of Chen earlier this year - suggest that politics does not necessarily follow economics.

Some Chinese analysts interpret the Taiwan vote as a repudiation of desires for a separate identity and an endorsement of the belief, still enshrined in Taiwan's constitution, that there is one China. The fact that Chen's pan-Green alliance campaigned heavily for a new constitution that would redefine the island distinctly as Taiwan would seem to lend credence to this belief.

But Taiwan's electorate was moved as much by local issues. And the voters showed both a fear of China and a desire not to rock the arrangement that has brought them prosperity, democracy and stability.

The opposition pan-Blue alliance, led by the Kuomintang, hardly shares Beijing's vision of one China any more. And the more extremist groups in both alliances - those favouring outright independence and rejoining the mainland - actually lost ground.

Ultimately, the best argument for unification will not be China's economic growth but its own transformation into a democracy. Until then, if Beijing wants to keep the status quo, it needs to demonstrate an understanding of Taiwan's democracy that it has so far failed to show.

(Daniel Sneider is foreign-affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. He can be reached at dsneider@mercurynews.com.)

--Indo-Asian News Service

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