Thursday, April 11, 1996

Tensions Across the Formosa Strait

At the end of March, I attended a conference on "National Strategies in the Asia-Pacific" held in Monterey. It was jointly sponsored by the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research and The Monterey Institute of International Studies. This took place shortly after the presidential election was held in Taiwan and the military exercises on the mainland had ended. Thus appropriate to the event just passed, one of the panel discussions was on a post mortem analysis of the repercussions and aftermath.

The distinguished panel consisted of: Michel Oksenberg, a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Asia/Pacific Research Center and former President of the East-West Center; Douglas Pall, President of Asia-Pacific Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and former Special Assistant to President Bush; and Dwight Perkins, Professor of Economics at Harvard University. All have published widely on China and are well known authorities on U.S.-China relations, China politics and economics, and related subjects.

The rules of the conference were that the substance of the discussion may be reported but not for attribution. Therefore I will report on some of the more interesting points raised without identifying who said what.

• Based on rudimentary analysis of the parties involved, we can expect a military exercise from the mainland, everytime an election is held in Taiwan. The latest exercise was no different in scale than the previous ones. Only 15,000 troops were involved, same as before, and not enough to overrun even one island within the shouting distance of the mainland. Only the media coverage was greatly expanded.

• The report on human rights conditions in China from the office of John Shuttack, the Assistant Secretary of State on Human Rights, was issued without any concensus or approval from within the Clinton Administration.

• All three parties lost in this exercise. Taiwan had to spend tens of billions of foreign exchange to support the stock market to keep it from collapsing. China has lost credibility in the forum of world opinion. The U.S. showed its absence of any consistent foreign policy in having to call in gun boat diplomacy.

• A positive spin of the hereafter is that Taiwan has already taken a significant positive step in recognizing Beijing as the legitimate government on the mainland. Both sides having participated in high theater for months will now get down to the serious business of negotiating direct mail, shipping visits across the straits and other issues of mutual interests.

• A contrary view is that the positive spin presupposes that all parties are rational actors. Unfortunately the actions of all three parties, including the U.S., are driven by domestic politics and not by what is necessarily rational and in the best self-interest. For example, having to put China's MFN status back on the table again is against everybody's self interest.

• As one indication of the current Administration's skewed foreign policy is to point out that Warren Christopher, Secretary of State, has been to China only once but Syria 17 times. Another from the audience pointed out that in view of the lack of progress with Syria, perhaps it is just well that the Secretary hasn't been to China 17 times.

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