Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Failing a Democracy: The US-Japan-Taiwan alliance and its implications for conflict with China.

This article is posted by AH.

This has been a banner year for the pro-Taiwan movement and its independence-orientated President Chen Shui-bian. From accelerating business investment, evidenced by the growing number of Taiwanese companies operating in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), to Beijing’s agreement to resume and extend direct flights from Taipei to the mainland during the all important Chinese New Year holidays, Chen has remained at the helm of Taiwan’s hawkish Democratic Progressive Party (DDP). Earlier last year Taipei’s relationship with Beijing appeared to have stabilized to an appeasing level and domestic business leaders touted the benefits of a strong economic relationship with China. Yet although economic relations are strong, there is a categorical rejection by Taiwan’s DDP leaders to rescind their independent ambitions. Clearly, Chen is operating a fairly successful two pronged foreign policy vis-à-vis China, delineated along two distinct lines. On the one hand, by utilizing cross-straits investment opportunities Taiwan is overtly strengthening economic relations with China; while on the other, Chen’s domestic vision for Taiwan’s sovereignty is the catalyst for Taipei’s increasingly assertive secessionist behavior and its pro-independence ideology.

Through the economic lens relations between Taipei and Beijing are largely one-sided, verified by the rapid influx of cross-straits investments now anchoring China as Taiwan’s largest trading partner. This is significant for two reasons: (1) historically, increased economic integration has often paved the way for assuaging relations, and (2) as a result of Taiwanese investment in mainland China, Taipei enjoys a substantial trade surplus and is keen to further strengthen economic growth. While trade and investment may serve as facilitators of stalwart economic ties, underneath the smiles there lies a political and military element to the relationship that will ultimately have to be addressed. Whether Chen is successful in securing Taiwanese independence from China remains to be seen, what is determinable is that it will not be the strengthening of economic trade alone that will dictate the direction the relationship takes.
Contradicting the positive overtones of Taiwan’s economic relationship with China, cross-straits political and military relations remain tense. Despite a trade boom, the fact remains that Beijing has had no constructive sustainable dialogue with the Taiwanese constituency since the rupture of official political ties in 1972. Although Taiwan and China have maintained separate governments and political systems since 1949, for Beijing, having separate governments is not indicative of any allowance or thought to legitimate state partition. It has been one year since Beijing successfully legislated the ‘use of force anti-succession law’ against Taiwan and political relations have soured accordingly. Taipei and Beijing have adopted opposing antagonistic stances which are reflected in Taiwan’s increasingly assertive, pro-independence movement and China’s reactionary political rhetoric and threats of force.

The Taiwan Straits issue specifically impacts Taiwan, China, Japan and the US and is simply not a bi-lateral or localized matter. Further, regional and international institutional organizations serve as impediments constraining any direct military action by China. These organizations include such regional pacts as ASEAN and APEC and internationally, the United Nations (UN). Importantly, due to the fragility of cross-straits relations coupled with region-wide wariness of Beijing’s intentions, China does not enjoy unanimous support in its quest for Taiwanese reunification. At present, Chen’s DDP political objectives are for Taiwan independence and so accordingly, tensions across the straits have heightened with warnings from Beijing and the US calling for Taipei to support the status quo. The fact that China sees Taiwan as rouge province comes as no surprise as their economic and political apparatuses are formulated on opposing foundations, one Democratic, the other Communist. This clash of political and economic cultures plays an increasingly pivotal role in Sino-Taiwanese relations.

The US position in the cross-straights issue is elucidated by articulated longstanding support for Taiwan’s market economy and pluralistic domestic political system. However, Washington’s backing is not predicated on Taiwanese independence. To the contrary, US leaders have consistently upheld the status quo of the three No’s policy; No to Taiwanese independence, no to two China’s (the one China policy), and finally, no to Taiwan’s participation in any international organizations or alliances where members are sovereign states. Additionally, the Taiwanese Relations Act (TRA) in no way alludes to Washington’s support of an independent Taiwan. In its essence, the TRA seeks further multifaceted economic and cultural integration. However, it stops short of calling for increased political or military relations. This policy remains intact today with US President Bush reassuring Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as recent as 2003 that the US does not support Taiwanese independence and is opposed to unilateral activity across the Taiwan Straits. Whether the US would become militarily engaged with China over the Taiwan issue is something that Washington would rather not have to face. While it is the case that the US does militarily support Taiwan by selling Taipei military equipment, these military acquisitions are largely symbolic against the backdrop of over 700 missiles aimed across the straits at Taiwan.

Although recent domestic political actions taken by Taiwanese President Shui-bian have called Washington’s commitment into question, US policy remains unchanged. Even as Chen advances the DDP’s agenda by abandoning the National Unification Council (NUC) and exploiting power politics by moving Taiwan closer to independence, the US continues to support the one-China policy.

Tokyo’s view of Taiwan seems to reflect soft support for Taiwan’s DDP party which enjoys a favorable relationship with Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). However, this support is militarily flimsy and politically attenuated at best. With China as Japan’s largest trading partner, Beijing increasingly yields considerable influence in shaping Tokyo’s perception of Taiwan. Eager to benefit economically from the PRC’s rise to world superpower, Japan is not willing to sacrifice relations with Beijing over the Taiwan issue. Lack of military capacity notwithstanding, Japan’s Article 9 effectively prevents any Japanese military action should a conflict ensue. In truth, Japan remains trapped between the desire for economic trade with China and Tokyo’s desire to uphold a fellow Asian democracy, one that looks to Japan for cultural and political influence. Obviously Tokyo’s true ability lies not in military power but in soft power, encouraging cultural and economic ties while politically placating to Beijing on the one-China principle and although the US and Japan signed the joint declaration for the easing of tensions across the Taiwan Straits in 2005, any military support will come from the US and not Japan.

Finally, as this issue is still evolving, it is impossible to predict any outcome. Though, it behoves that given the economic prosperity of Asia-Pacific, any disruption impeding further economic development must be avoided. Certainly there are domestic factors influencing Chen’s push for independence such as his slumping popularity and his desire to secure his political legacy. Chen has stated that he will make constitutional reform an issue in future elections. Any reform will facilitate the government’s ability to move towards full independence. Chen is due to step down in 2008, should Taiwan’s strategic imbalance with, and geopolitical bulling by China continue, Taipei’s next leaders will forced to weigh the merits of secession against maintaining the status quo. This will be an important flash-point to watch and will likely be profound in its ultimate impact on both regional and international relations.

by AH