Tuesday, April 17, 2001

China and Taiwan Closer Than You Think - Arms Sales Will Subvert Reconciliation

Pacific News Service, George Koo, Posted: Apr 17, 2001

Editor's Note: Long considered warring states, China and Taiwan are actually moving closer to one another on cultural, economic and even political fronts. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will jeopardize this process of reconciliation, leaving Taiwan more, rather than less, secure in the decade ahead.

The Bush administration must now decide whether or not to sell arms to Taiwan, a choice that will affect U.S.-China relations far more than any effects of the spy plane incident.

Those who favor selling the most advanced weapon systems to Taiwan say they would make that country more secure. In reality, just the opposite is true.

Taiwan is already the world's second largest arms buyer to Saudi Arabia -- spending about $3 billion per year. Its ability to inflict damage on any invader is sufficient to ensure that such action would not to be taken lightly.

In any event, no such conflict is imminent, as Beijing has stated it will turn to armed intervention only if Taiwan declares independence.

This is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. For one thing, a majority of the people on Taiwan do not favor independence from the mainland. On the contrary, recent polls show the numbers favoring reunification are actually increasing. The majority still prefer the status quo -- but even "status quo" means the two sides moving closer together.

The two cannot be considered warring states. Half a million Taiwanese now live and work on the mainland. The career paths of many young Taiwanese now pass through Shanghai, Kunshan, Tongguan -- or wherever a new office or factory goes up on the mainland.

Taiwanese-owned restaurants, shops and factories employ more than three percent of the mainland workforce.

And when Taiwanese leave their island for vacations, more than half go to the mainland.

Two-way trade across the strait reached $25 billion in 1999, roughly four to one in Taiwan's favor. In most years Taiwan's surplus from trade with China more than covers the deficit Taiwan tallies with the rest of the world. This is not insignificant when you consider that the island's economy is export-driven.

Vocal advocates of independence for Taiwan are a distinct minority -- no more than 15 percent, according to polls, and the number is declining because people from both sides are more integrated than ever.

Chen Shui-bian was elected president last year with less than 40 percent of the popular vote under an existing constitution that recognizes Taiwan as a part of China. He ran on a clean government pledge -- had he advocated independence, he would have lost.

Since the election, the rhetoric from both sides has been increasingly conciliatory. Most observers believe that prospects for reopening cross strait talks and negotiations, begun in 1992, are more favorable than ever.

Despite China's placement of missiles, actual military conflagration across the strait could only come as a last resort, triggered by declaration of independence by Taiwan and/or overt military provocation by the U.S.

Sales of Aegis system or theater missile defense (TMD) system could well constitute such a provocation.

The United States has stood by a consistent "One-China" policy for three decades. Sale of destroyers equipped with the Aegis replaces that policy for a virtually irrevocable military alliance with Taiwan. This is precisely the kind of interference China could not tolerate or ignore, and exactly the excuse Taiwan needs to avoid negotiating with Beijing.

Sale of advanced military weapons could lead the protagonists to think that Washington supports Taipei's resistance to negotiate and that the U.S. stands ready to put the lives of its own military personnel on the line over the cross strait dispute.

Instead of promoting an arms race, Washington should encourage the two sides to resume the cross strait negotiations. In the decade since those talks began, the wealth gap between Taiwan and the mainland has narrowed and the synergy of the two sides working together becomes increasingly evident.

Washington can do its part by not adding any fuel to the fire. The Bush administration should declare that the U.S. stands ready to support any peaceful reconciliation worked out by the two sides.

Historically, culturally, ethnically and linguistically, Taiwan is a part of China. Most of the people in Taiwan think of themselves as Chinese, identify with the people on the mainland and recognize that their destiny lies in being part of China. Washington, by merely relying on the "One-China" policy and not selling arms, will add immeasurably to the momentum towards reconciliation.