TCS Daily

China, the US and the 'Four Nevers'

By Bryan Preston - March 9, 2005 12:00 AM

A US military delegation arrived in Taiwan Saturday, just ahead of a pivotal period in the island's history. The American delegation is in Taiwan to assess technology that Taiwanese industry might provide to the US military, most likely semiconductors. The visit is part of a 25-year-old Pentagon technology upgrade program, yet is the first such trip to Taiwan. Its timing is interesting, to say the least.

In Beijing, the Chinese congress entered full session on the same day the US technology team arrived in Taipei. Among the marquee items on its agenda, the National People's Congress (NPC) will consider an anti-secession law relating to Taiwan's status. That law, if passed as is expected on March 14, may set out a legal basis for the Communist mainland to invade Taiwan should the latter declare its independence. It may also make it illegal to advocate Taiwan's independence at all in China, muzzling Taiwan's mainland supporters.

Such advocacy may soon be the result of the NPC's consideration of the anti-secession law. Taiwan's reaction to the anti-secession law has been loud, and will become louder. Students, industry figures and most of Taiwan's political parties have taken to the streets to protest the law and promote full independence. In Taipei this week, the Taiwan Legislature will consider a measure that would formally declare Taiwan's sovereignty and independence. China has long declared its intention to storm Taiwan by force should the island ever declare independence, with or without an anti-secession law. If both the NPC and the Taiwan Legislature pass their respective, and mutually exclusive, laws, Beijing and Taipei would be on a logical course for war.

So far, the mainland has been playing down the anti-secession law as nothing more than a reaffirmation of "one China, two systems" and a restatement of principals designed to boost cross-Strait trade and contact. Nothing to see here, move along. But even while it talks peace, the NPC is expected to pass a $29.9 billion increase in military spending, nearly a 13% increase over last year. China's military continues to modernize at a brisk pace, with hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles, the People's Liberation Army's high-tech weapon of choice, already sitting across the Formosa Strait from Taiwan and more on the way. The European Union's plan to resume weapons sales to Beijing for the first time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre may further accelerate the PLA's modernization. As Taiwan's chief arms supplier, the United States could soon find itself feeding an arms race against a China backed by Europe.

But what is the anti-secession law, exactly? As one hint of Beijing's thinking, Chinese President Hu Jintao led off the NPC's deliberations with a speech outlining "four nevers" intended to "clarify" its relations with Taiwan. The "four nevers" state Beijing will "never sway in adhering to the one-China principle; never give up efforts to seek peaceful reunification; never change the principle of placing hope on Taiwan compatriots; and never compromise in opposing the 'Taiwan independence' separatist activities." They constitute a velvet and steel approach. Nevers two and three advocate peace and place hope on pro-mainland sympathizers in Taiwan to keep it from declaring independence, while nevers one and four put the glint of military steel into the relationship should things go awry.

Other than understatedly calling it "unwelcome," the Bush administration so far has said very little about the anti-secession law, and wisely so, for the simple reason that no one outside the Chinese Communist elites knows what the law actually says. Its name alone has been enough to jitter the Taiwanese stock markets lately, but as is fairly typical of laws under consideration in Communist governments, the anti-secession law's text has not been released publicly. And whatever the wording is now, it may change during the course of the NPC session. And those changes could be influenced by what Taiwan, Washington and even Tokyo (Japan recently declared Taiwanese security to be a concern it shared with the US) say and do between now and March 14.

In Tokyo, the Koizumi government has thus far refrained from official comment, but Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara called Beijing a "troublemaker" on Friday ahead of the start of the NPC's anti-secession deliberations. Ishihara often floats comments the Koizumi administration is thinking but doesn't want to say in public, so his comments can be taken as Japan's unofficial stance. The governor issued the rebuke directly to the Director-General of the Chinese Government Information Office, with whom he was meeting at the time, ensuring that Beijing got wind of it in short order. Ishihara went on to insist that consideration of the anti-secession law as well as China's repeated use of survey ships and submarines to violate Japanese territorial waters is ratcheting up tensions in the region. On that, Ishihara is entirely correct. China's navy has been behaving badly over the past couple of years, even showing up off Guam, which is an American commonwealth.

Somewhere outside all of this historic back and forth over China's anti-secession law, the threat of North Korea's nuclear program hovers. That program, and China's influence over ending it, is the elephant in the middle of the room around which all other regional issues navigate. Japan's guarantee of Taiwan's security was in part a move to draw China's attention to the likelihood that Japan and several of its neighbors, perhaps including even Taiwan itself, will go nuclear if Kim Jong-Il retains the bomb under China's nose. China's anti-secession growl at Taiwan is in part an attempt to drive Japan back from the edge of remilitarization and cow Taiwan at the same time. Governor Ishihara's comments indicate that Japan is not intimidated. If Taiwan actually passes some sort of independence declaration while the NPC formalizes an anti-secession law with any teeth, the region will stand on the brink of war. And of course, the United States remains pledged to defend Taiwan against mainland invasion. In 2002, the Bush administration reaffirmed that pledge, going as far as declaring that all means necessary to defend Taiwan would be on the table.

Bryan Preston is a freelance journalist and multimedia producer, as well as author of JunkYardBlog.


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