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Might China grab Taiwan
whilst America is preoccupied?




Jonathan Power

February 14, 2003

LONDON - The United States is rushing full tilt at Iraq when, as Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister said a few days ago, "we haven't finished the first job [in Afghanistan]; we can't see the end of it". He puts his finger right on the sore point: where is Osama bin Laden whom President George Bush is meant to be "smoking out", the overriding foreign policy objective until the diversion of Iraq suddenly appeared (or was concocted)?

Just to be mischievous the current issue of Prospect magazine, the leading British political monthly, muddies the waters even more. What if China chose this moment, when America is preoccupied with Iraq, North Korea, and Afghanistan and supposedly bin Laden to launch an attack on Taiwan? This could be the perfect moment to strike and regain the renegade island for the motherland whilst the U.S. has its hands full. After all since 1972 and the Shanghai Communiqué Washington has recognised that Taiwan is part of China. Would it really risk war with China at a time when it is already overstretched to stop what most American strategists believe is inevitable one day? According to Prospect, the National Security Council official responsible for this corner of the globe says the White House, even in the midst of all these other crises, thinks hard about Taiwan "twice a week".

Michael Mandelbaum in his new insightful book, "The Ideas that Conquered the World" says the Taiwan Strait "qualifies as the most dangerous spot on the planet". And Robert McNamara, the former U.S. Secretary of Defence, in his recent book says that "many believe that the day of reckoning over Taiwan is coming". "Why has this relic of a Cold War long since over become a potential flashpoint for a Great Power conflict in the 21st century?" he asks.

The short answer is that at the moment it is not a flashpoint. Beijing is too consumed with his political transition from one generation of leaders to the next and has too much invested in its own long term relationship with Washington for it to suddenly lurch into action and become opportunist over Taiwan. Even if it were of a mind to, it would certainly pause for a long time before it leaped, aware not only of Taiwan's not insignificant military capability but the 72 American F-15s based in nearby Okinawa and of America's ability to deploy a carrier task force if necessary, not to mention its Los Angeles-class attack submarine on regular patrol in these waters. Even the much feared Chinese missile deployments on its coast facing Taiwan, while capable of wrecking havoc among a fearful Taiwanese population, are fewer and of lesser quality than those used by U.S. forces in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Beijing doesn't need to be told that it remains in an inferior position.

The only extraordinary event that could push the Chinese leadership to become aggressive to the point of taking enormous military and political risks is if the Taiwanese government declared the island's formal independence. But this is highly unlikely and it certainly would not happen whilst the U.S. is up to its neck with other problems. Besides, President Chen Shui-bian, although privately has leant in that direction for many years knows what happened when his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, spoke publicly of Taiwanese sovereignty. It did not advance Taiwan's cause in Washington. The U.S. continues to practice what is called "double deterrence". This means deterring China from an invasion or intimidatory tactics on the one hand and deterring Taiwan's political elite from being tempted to formally declare their country independent. Indeed, this is the basis of a useful formulation of what diplomacy should aspire to made by Joseph Nye, the respected Harvard don- Beijing should pledge not to use force against Taiwan which, in turn, should pledge not to declare independence.

Of course, there are many Taiwanese who understandably think Nye's suggestion is a step too far because they feel there is something profoundly inequitable in an equation that seems to ignore that it was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that Taiwan was claimed by China as a province and that lasted a mere ten years. Beijing never ruled Taiwan throughout the twentieth century. There is a big principle of justice and human rights at stake here.

China knows it cannot get away with a military solution and Taiwan knows that the status quo, as long as it is not actively threatened, gives it the leeway to get on with the most important part of life- running a democratic, free-speech, state that has 100 % autonomy over its domestic economy and political system. True, in international relations its initiatives are limited by non-recognition by most of the outside world, but that is a small price to pay for an American security blanket and for the freedom to be as it is today- a prosperous haven of democracy, pushing forward its own standards on human rights and developing economically at a very steady pace. All of which is an active role model for what China could become. Only if China itself becomes democratic and conscious of the importance of human rights might its ultra-nationalism become muted and the Taiwan issue be settled amicably.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2003 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





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