TCS Daily

"The Cautious Seldom Err"

By Jason Miks - March 29, 2006 12:00 AM

The great Chinese philosopher Confucius once wrote that "the cautious seldom err." This advice is what US officials might like Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian to commit to memory, as his stance towards the disputed island's relationship with the mainland grows increasingly provocative.

President Chen was elected back in 2000 on his 'five no's' which included a pledge not to abolish the National Unification Council and not to declare independence. His popularity peaked a month after the election at 80 per cent, but it has been on the slide since then, reaching historic lows last year barely in double figures. It is perhaps in an effort to fire up supporters and revive his electoral prospects in 2008 that he has made a number of hardline statements in recent months, including his announcement that the National Unification Council was to close -- a move which, not unexpectedly, has infuriated China.

This more forceful approach is placing a strain Taiwan's relations with the US, which does not want a confrontation with China over the issue, but which is obliged under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to come to the island's aid in the event of military aggression. Indeed President Chen's recent rhetoric also risks sucking in Japan, with Chen proclaiming recently that "Japan has a requirement and an obligation to come to the defense of Taiwan."

While Japan is certainly more willing to make its voice heard in the region's affairs -- indeed the US and Japan last year agreed that the issue is a security concern for both -- it may not thank President Chen for being so casual about using its support as a stick with which to beat the Chinese. Such talk merely adds to the complications and soul searching Japan is already doing over possible rewriting of war renouncing Article 9 of its constitution and the frosty relations between it and China.

The danger of a flash-point over Taiwan is real enough to have a number of commentators worried, including Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, who argues in a new book The Coming War With China that such a confrontation is increasingly likely with attitudes hardening on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.

Into this debate has stepped Ma Ying-jeou, the mayor of Taipei and the most likely contender to lead the opposition KMT. Ma has been touring the US and last week made a number of high-profile addresses including at the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institute, as well as holding meetings with US officials including White House Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security, Peter Rodman. Such meetings are perhaps a sign of the frustration with President Chen and an indication of the US desire to find some sort of middle ground -- an approach which Ma promises to pursue.

Ma argued during his Brookings address that Taiwan should be acting as 'a peacemaker, not a troublemaker' and with a nod to his meetings with government officials suggested that the US role in security affairs in East Asia could be made much easier. There are probably also many Taiwanese who sympathize with his view that better relations with China might mean that "more resources could be used for economic development, for education, for social welfare instead of for war preparations."

Yet Ma's approach is not universally popular, even at home. The Liberty Times asked pointedly in an editorial whether he represents Taiwan or China and he will have to tread a fine line between communicating more effectively with the Chinese and appearing to be a mouthpiece for the People's Republic party line. There are also questions over whether his attacks on corruption in the ruling DPP -- which have played a part in that party's slide in popularity -- might not play well at home for a candidate promising to take a more constructive approach; Chen's poll numbers have also started to recover from their previous lows.

Ultimately Ma's position is to try and find a third way between unification and independence. But in the longer term, even this more accommodating approach may not be enough if China decides the status quo is no longer acceptable and its continued military build up is certainly an ominous sign of impatience. Ma may therefore just be postponing the inevitable.

Yet such postponement is something the US and Japan would probably welcome right now. The US is stretched thin both militarily and politically with troops committed to Iraq, its counter terrorism efforts across the globe and the Iran and North Korea nuclear issue stand offs -- the last thing it needs is to be sucked into a conflict with China. Although a democratic and free Taiwan is undoubtedly preferable to one that is not, precipitating a crisis now will not do anything to bring this about -- both the US and Japan therefore need to make clear to Chen that they will not be manipulated into a confrontation at the convenience of the Taiwanese leader.

Of course the risk is that the Chinese will themselves decide to follow some Confucian advice, namely that it does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop -- China may view progress towards reunification as ultimately inevitable and inexorable. But as long as the two sides are talking then conflict can likely be avoided and the search for some sort of compromise can continue. Wait-and-see may not seem like a very satisfactory response to the current situation, but for the sake of regional stability -- and in the interests of Taiwan's allies -- it looks like the best one for now.

Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations.


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