Walking The Tightrope In Taiwan

What would happen if the people of Taiwan voted to declare independence from China, officially recognizing what has been a practical reality for the past five decades? China's position is unequivocal: It would mean war. But Washington is deliberately vague. If the U.S. says it won't protect Taiwan, Beijing hardliners could interpret that as a green light to invade. If the U.S. says it must intervene, Washington ruins relations with Beijing and could encourage Taiwan to declare independence. By keeping both Beijing and Taipei guessing, it has been able to prevent either side from taking a rash action that would spell disaster.

But if current political trends in Taiwan continue, the U.S. could soon face an explosive new challenge to this policy. According to some polls, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian, is likely to be reelected on Dec. 5 as Taipei mayor. That would put him in a strong position to succeed President Lee Teng-hui, whose term ends in 2000. What's more, there's a real possibility that the ruling Kuomintang will lose its clear majority in Taiwan's legislature. The DPP is expected to be the big gainer, winning 35% of the seats. It would still take years to gain the majority. But the DPP--which Beijing treats with open hostility--increasingly looks like the party of Taiwan's future.

What makes Washington's dilemma even more wrenching is that this transition would happen entirely democratically. Since the 1980s, Taiwan has emerged as a vibrant democracy. But with this greater freedom, support for independence has steadily grown. Given Taiwan's immense backing in Congress and among the U.S. public, it would be extremely difficult for any U.S. President to sit back and let Taiwan be crushed just because its people asserted their right to self-rule. But it would be equally dangerous for the U.S. to become enemies with China, Asia's emerging superpower.

What should Washington do? First, it must engage the DPP and work hard to convince its supporters not to take the reckless plunge toward independence. But the U.S. also should reassure Taiwan that it will intervene if China invades without provocation. Beijing must open its eyes to the truth that the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese do not want to be ruled by the Communist Party--and will vote out anyone who makes such a deal. Instead, Beijing should begin talking to the DPP. There's still time to craft a new diplomacy. Only 32% of Taiwanese back independence. But that's triple the level of a decade ago--and the long-term trend is unmistakable.

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