»  National Review Online

December 16th, 2003

  The Taiwan Tango


President Bush's remarks about Taiwan, following his meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have set off a spate of hyperventilating in both Taipei and Washington. Typical was The Weekly Standard:

The government of Taiwan proceeded about its democratic business in a legal and appropriate manner that threatened no one. The government of China decided to throw a fit to see if it could take advantage of U.S. preoccupation with Iraq and North Korea to tilt U.S. policy against Taiwan. And the U.S. government decided to at least partly appease Beijing …

This needs a little deconstruction. Taiwan is a small country with a large and hostile neighbor. She has the good fortune to possess what small countries in that position all need: a treaty of friendship and mutual support with a large, friendly power — us. Such treaties do not confer invulnerability. Their value depends on the will of the larger counterparty, as Czechoslovakia discovered in 1938. In normal times, though, they offer a pretty sound hedge against attack by the ugly neighbor.

In the case of Taiwan and the U.S., "treaty" is really too strong a word, since nothing in U.S. or international law requires the U.S. to respond militarily to a Chinese assault on Taiwan. However, it is inconceivable that a U.S. administration — particularly this administration — would stand and watch while the Communists annihilated the first Chinese-speaking democracy that ever existed. That means that if push comes to shove across the Taiwan Strait, American soldiers will be dying and American parents will be grieving. And that gives an American President the right to speak out against provocative grandstanding by Taiwan politicians.

For, yes, Taiwan is a democracy. Taiwan politicians are subject to the same temptations, and prone to the same follies and excesses, as democratic politicians everywhere. Furthermore, Taiwan has a presidential election coming up, and the current president, Chen Shui-bian, is standing for re-election. The big-ticket item in his re-election platform is a proposal for a new constitution, more clearly defining Taiwan's status as a nation, "to turn Taiwan into a normal, complete, and great democratic country."

Well, that would be nice, and as a matter of fact I share President Chen's dream. Unlike him, however, I believe it will, for the foreseeable future, remain just that — a dream. Taiwan is de facto an independent nation. No substantive issue of any importance in Taiwan's internal affairs is decided by any outside nation. The people of Taiwan are as free as any nation can be in this globalized world — freer, I think it could be argued, than the average member nation of the EU. A form of words will not improve on that freedom; but a form of words might destroy it.

I am going to tread carefully in what follows, as it is sure to give offense. I admire Chen Shui-bian, and am in awe of his persistence, against cruel opposition and personal tragedy, in pursuing the ideals of liberty and rational government. I cannot, however, shake off the impression that he is a bit silly. His party, the D.P.P., gives off a distinct whiff of New Left flapdoodle. Most of its members would, if they were Americans, be Democrats. There are some excellent excuses for this. The D.P.P.'s characteristic Greenery, for instance, is an entirely natural reaction to the environmental price Taiwan paid for forty years of breakneck industrial development. (The first Taiwan notable I ever met was the mayor of Taipei, a fellow named Gao, back in 1971. Confronted with the need to say something, and filled with the impertinence of youth, I blurted out: "You really have a terrible air pollution problem here in Taipei, you know." Hizzoner, peering back at me through the murk: "No, no! No problem! No air pollution! Ha ha ha!")

Chen's new constitution, or as much of it as we have so far heard about, bolsters this impression. It seems that the document will be of a sort to warm a Eurocrat's heart — chock-full of "rights." (It will apparently include provision for homosexual marriage, for instance.) Well, that's their business. Taiwan's definition of itself as a nation, however, is our business, for the aforesaid reasons.

The Standard:  "Can it really be President Bush's position that Taiwan is not permitted to hold any democratic referenda [sic] on any subjects whatsoever?"

Does anyone think that is Bush's position? Does the Standard think so? Has Bush said or done anything to suggest that that is his position? If the Taiwan government decides to hold a referendum on homosexual marriage, or on the building of nuclear power stations, does the Standard think this would draw stern reproofs from the White House? Do they think that anyone in America would give a flying foo yung? We are concerned with Taiwan's affairs only where they impinge on our own. Taiwan's declarations about her own nationhood do so impinge.

There is the further suspicion that Chen, or some in his party, are playing a long game. Look at the timing here. Current plans for the new constitution call for it to be adopted by referendum in 2006, and to be implemented in the spring of 2008, right at the end of President Chen's next term, supposing he is re-elected. In the summer of 2008, Beijing will be hosting the Olympic Games, and this event is of tremendous importance to the Chinese Communists as a legitimizing stamp for their dictatorship. So picture the scenario: In spring of 2008, Taiwan adopts its new constitution, declaring itself, in some form of words, to be an independent nation. If Beijing does nothing, they have lost Taiwan for good. If Beijing attacks, there will be mass boycotts of the Olympics, with consequent loss of face.*  This is the kind of dilemma the apparatchiks of Beijing would like to avoid at all costs.

The number of ways of avoiding it is very limited. The Communists could just attack Taiwan now and get the whole thing over with. By 2008 the dust would have settled, fickle western electorates would have forgotten all about it and be clamoring for their cheap Chinese goods, and the Games could go ahead without much incident. We can be sure that there are voices in the Chinese leadership arguing this case.

The other option is to cut a deal with President Bush. The Chinese Communists, after all, have something Bush wants: the ability to influence events in North Korea. They might also finally start to do something about their exports of missile technology to nations like Iran and Pakistan. From Bush they only want words — not words that will give them a cover for invading Taiwan, but words that will preserve the status quo for a few more years. Bush provided those words. In return, one hopes, he got assurances that the six-power talks (Russia, China, the U.S., Japan, the two Koreas) on North Korean nuclearization will proceed, and in a direction suitable to American interests.

How much those assurances are worth is an open question. It is a given that no agreement that depends on North Korea keeping its word is worth a damn. Yet the Chinese Communists are cut from the same cloth as the Norks — indeed, they refer to Kim Jong Il and his blood-spattered gang, in their own communiqués, as "fraternal socialist comrades." The people staffing the current Politburo in Beijing grew up watching North Korean movies, in which heroic patriots, under the leadership of Kim Jong Il's father, fought off the hated Japanese and Americans.

The equivalence is not exact: Kim Jong Il is practicing raw Stalinism, while the Chinese Communists have retreated to a sort of Paraguayan style of militarized kleptocracy. Still, the C.C.P. has been lying to its own people for 54 years, and is lying to them now about the "desire" of the "compatriots" on Taiwan to be reunited in the warm embrace of the Motherland.**  The most depressing thing about this week's exchanges between George W. Bush and Wen Jiabao is that they allow that lying to continue. Bearing in mind the track record of Chinese Communist lying, one has to wonder how much faith we should put in Chinese promises, and how much the administration actually has put in them.

Still, these are the people we must deal with, and critical matters of our own security are at stake. I yield to no-one in detestation of the Chinese Communists, and I can show published writings going back twenty years to demonstrate that. There is, however, a war on. This war is going to last for years, perhaps as long as the Cold War. Before it is through, we shall have cut deals with people a good deal less savory than Wen Jiabao. Indeed, we are already doing so, in Central Asia and elsewhere. If we can cut those deals without delivering democratic allies into the hands of our enemies, we should do so. Our President's statements this week fall well within those boundaries.

Taiwan is a free and independent nation. That her leaders cannot proclaim this fact out loud in the forums of the world for fear of provoking the Chinese Communist Party, an organization of thieves and murderers, is deplorable. There are, however, rather a lot of deplorable things going on in the world right now. I hope the administration is treating with proper skepticism any assurances we got from Wen Jiabao this week. In the context of our present peril, though, I don't think we had any option but to seek those assurances, or to trade them off for some mild criticisms of Taiwan's up-for-re-election President.

* Wags in Beijing are already discussing the "nine-year scenario." The theory is that a totalitarian dictatorship will collapse nine years after holding the Olympics: Nazi Germany held them in 1936, collapsed in 1945. The U.S.S.R. held them in 1980, collapsed in 1989. This appeals to the democrat in me, but not to the statistician. Two data points isn't much to go on — though someone tried to explain to me that it works for the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, too.

** Though not to much effect. Among the opinionated classes in China, hardly anyone believes that the Taiwanese want to be reunited with the mainland. Said classes desire that reunification none the less. To hold these two contradictory ideas in their minds — we must reunite our Chinese compatriots with the Motherland, even though this is the last thing they want — chauvinistic Chinese have fallen to hating the people of Taiwan, whom they speak of as semi-Nipponized traitors who deserve whatever happens to them when the People's Liberation Army rolls in. The "liberation" of Taiwan would not be a pretty sight.