[OUTLOOK]Keeping the Taiwan Strait peace

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[OUTLOOK]Keeping the Taiwan Strait peace

At a time when Japan’s relations with its Korean and Chinese neighbors have deteriorated sharply, it is comforting to observe the evident stabilization of links between Taiwan and China. When I traveled to Taipei and Beijing in January 2005, I returned apprehensive about the risks of a renewed crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
Over the course of the past year such fears have subsided, and the danger of conflict appears to have receded. I believe the prospects for stability in the strait will persist.
The current reduction in cross-strait tensions reflects a number of developments, many of them familiar.
Beijing’s policy of peace and development was established to permit a single-minded focus on hastening its internal modernization. It needs peace on its periphery to concentrate attention and resources on the daunting development and institutional challenges it confronts at home. While Beijing remains steadfast in its defense of the one-China principle, it exhibits flexibility in how that principle might be interpreted.
Specifically, it has articulated no outright opposition to expressions like “one China, two interpretations” or “two sides of the strait, one China” advanced by Taiwanese opposition parties. And for all the confusion aroused by its passage of the anti-seccession bill last year, Beijing’s purpose was largely to remind Americans and others that if Taiwan declared its independence, China would be forced to react. I believe its objective was to secure U.S. help in dissuading Taipei from attempting unilaterally to alter the political status quo.
Meanwhile, interdependence between the Taiwanese and Chinese economies continues to grow, providing both sides with heightened stakes in managing differences without jeopardizing commercial ties. About 4.3 million Taiwanese visited China last year. Bilateral cross-strait trade exceeded $90 billion. Between January and October, 2005 Taiwanese invested nearly $5 billion in the mainland. The number of Taiwanese working in the Shanghai area continues to multiply dramatically, and unofficial talks are underway to expand transportation links and facilitate cross-strait investment.
Beijing has chosen to accentuate the positive in its dealings with Taiwan. To be sure, it has directed its attention primarily to courting opposition parties, while minimizing dealings with President Chen Suibian and his political allies. But it is Beijing rather than Taipei that appears readier to expand tourism and transportation links, and these softer tactics play more effectively with the Taiwanese public.
The results of Taiwan’s local elections last December, moreover, further weakened President Chen’s hand. While these elections turned mainly on local issues and offered no clear message on cross-strait policy, they reinforced an impression that the DPP is running out of gas, and that Taiwan’s public has little stomach for provocative initiatives that could precipitate a renewed crisis.
The United States continues to maintain a policy stance relying on strategic “clarity” rather than “ambiguity.” Washington regularly warns Beijing to forego coercive means of pursuing unification, and frequently reminds Taipei that it should not expect U.S. support for steps designed to transform its de facto autonomy into de jure independence.
There are, of course, some clouds over this generally benign horizon. President Chen remains more interested in promoting Taiwan’s identity rather than facilitating additional links with the mainland. Beijing is more intent on cultivating connections with Taiwanese opposition leaders than in pursuing a dialogue with Taipei authorities. Cross-strait economic links continue to expand, but at a somewhat slower pace than previously. The People’s Republic continues to finance double-digit increases in its defense budget and to procure military systems designed to weaken the American resolve to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf in contingencies, while Taipei continues to stall efforts to augment its self-defense capabilities.
And while Sino-U.S. relations remain in fair shape, critics of the relationship are sounding off within both the executive branch and the Congress.
Fortunately, a renewed effort is under way to upgrade the quality of the Sino-U.S. strategic dialogue, even as both countries hedge against uncertainties. This is salutary, for Taiwan’s security is generally enhanced when Sino-U.S. relations are solid.
Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick is certainly well-qualified by intellect and temperament to manage the American side of this dialogue. Already he has stimulated a useful discussion of his concept of China as a “stakeholder” in the international community.
It is worth pursuing this notion in an open-minded and open-ended manner. It appears thoroughly compatible with China’s doctrine of “peaceful rise.” American equities in Taiwan are best protected within the framework of broad, mutually beneficial Sino-U.S. engagement. A strategic dialogue with Beijing is most likely to flourish if Mr. Zoellick resists the temptation to prescribe for China the parameters of its international role, and concentrates instead on the fundamental task of diplomacy ― establishing the basis of agreement or disagreement on those issues where our interests intersect.
If he does that, I have no doubt that the United States and China will find more common ground, even on cross-strait issues.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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