Roiling the Waters in the Taiwan Strait


Mar 21, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on March 21, 2006.

SANTA MONICA, California -- Although relations between the United States and China appear to be stable today, a new crisis may be looming in the Taiwan Strait.

In late February, Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, announced that he was ending the operation of a government committee nominally intended to oversee Taiwan's eventual unification with the mainland.

Although the committee had not met since Chen became president in 2000, his action nonetheless rang alarm bells in Beijing.

China has threatened to use force if Taiwan ever formally declares independence and is concerned about Chen's next step.

Chen has stated that the principle political initiative for the remainder of his term in office will be reforming Taiwan's constitution. This document, originally written when Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang ruled all of China, has been revised several times, but is widely recognized in Taiwan to be in need of further updating.

We have just returned from a two-week trip during which we met with many of China's Taiwan specialists, and we have become aware how the constitutional revision process could cause a three-way collision between China, Taiwan and the United States.

The specialists in China raised the concern that Chen, whose party advocates independence for Taiwan, will put before Taiwan's people a charter that codifies Taiwan's independence from China.

Well aware of Beijing's threat to use force if Taiwan declares independence, the people of Taiwan are most unlikely to ratify such a constitution. Ratification would require the approval of at least three quarters of Taiwan's legislature and half of all eligible voters.

But with his approval ratings currently in the low teens, it is possible that Chen may feel that even a failed attempt to codify Taiwan's independence will improve his political standing, establish his legacy as the first Taiwanese leader to attempt to formalize Taiwan's independence, and ensure his continuing political influence when his second and last presidential term ends in 2008.

China's leadership, for its part, is not confident that the Taiwanese would reject independence. Beijing is therefore likely to threaten Taiwan with concrete consequences if an independence constitution is even submitted for ratification.

Such consequences would undoubtedly fall short of war. But if Chen defies Beijing's warnings and submits a draft constitution, China could feel compelled to take action to maintain the credibility of its future warnings and threats.

If China's response consists of intimidating military exercises such as those conducted in 1995 and 1996, the United States could feel compelled to react with its own deployment of forces to the Western Pacific.

Such actions are not likely to result in an actual clash between the United States and China, but they would usher in a period of heightened tensions, such as those after the 1995 and 1996 exercises.

War between the United States and China is not inevitable, nor is conflict between Taiwan and the mainland.

But avoiding crises in the Taiwan Strait and managing three-way relations among the United States, China and Taiwan will continue to require skill and delicacy.

Roger Cliff is a political scientist and Toy Reid is a research assistant at the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy.

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