Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Taiwan Elections: Stirring a Pot of Trouble

The majority Democratic Progressive Party won by a small but substantive majority in parliamentary elections last week. This win for the party and president most identified with the independence movement; last year he told Time Magazine explicitly that he cannot accept One China, the principle that the People's Republic repeatedly vows to go to war to defend.

Taiwan is an independent sovereign country, which, according to the current Constitution, bears the national designation of the Republic of China. It has no jurisdiction over the People's Republic of China, nor does the PRC exercise any effective jurisdiction over the Republic of China.

After half a century of lip service to One China from the KMT, this is a very harsh statement from a leader of the ROC. And it means trouble for the US. While basically supportive of Taiwanese de facto independence, the US has a profound interest in preserving the fiction of progress toward reunification in order to appease the PRC. Some real movement occurred earlier this year when the head of the Nationalist Party (KMT) met with Communist Party officials.

The key word is fiction. Any movement at all, either toward reunification or toward independence, is essentially not in the US's interest. Instability in the status quo hightens Japanese attention to security matters, destabilizes trade in the region, and strains formal US diplomatic relations with both parties.

In the next few years there likely will be pressure on the US from the PRC to disengage from Taiwan, from Japan to reign in Chinese expansionism, and from the ROC to sell it more arms. The US should continue to defend the democracy on Taiwan, and must continue to engage the nascent superpower on the mainland, but in general we should do as little as possible. If the Strait again heats up, as it has threatened to do in the 1990s, that may be the hardest policy of all.


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