America’s Rogue Ally

For years, dealing with Pyongyang has been the most difficult diplomatic endeavor for Beijing. This was the case even before the outbreak of the Korea War when Kim Il Sung, father of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, worked out a war plan with Soviet leader Stalin and then sold it to Mao. The day after the North attacked the South, President Truman ordered the 7th Fleet back to the Taiwan Strait and hence the Mainland lost Taiwan. During the three-year conflict, China bore the brunt of the fighting and suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. The post-war North Korean official propaganda, however, scarcely acknowledged China’s role. Last October, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) tested its nuclear device despite China’s warning and efforts to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. Now, after years of China’s hard work to host many rounds of six-party talks, a North-South summit early this month in Pyongyang went as far as to suggest that China may not be a party “directly concerned” with a “permanent peace regime” on the peninsula.

Now Washington tastes a similar bitter fruit with its quasi-ally Taiwan. Indeed, the summer of 2007 in Taiwan may well be remembered not as the hottest weather-wise but the hottest politically as the island shifted into overdrive to achieve a seat in the United Nations. This time, Taiwan directly defied Washington’s warning not to do so.

Both DPRK and Taiwan are small allies to their “big brother.” Each tries, either for internal or external reasons, to assert its own interests: passionately, persistently, blindly, and even at the expense of those of the “big brother.” They exploit the differences between major powers. Neither cares much about the stability and security of the surrounding regions. They are both, in this sense, rogue allies.

Balancing and hedging acts are not new, and even normal, among nation-states. Overplaying such a game — or allowing such a game to be overplayed by a junior partner — is potentially dangerous for regional and world stability.

There are, however, some major differences between the two rogue allies. First, North Korea strives for substance (survival and security), while Taiwan is obsessed with superficiality (self-identity and self-righteousness). Secondly, North Korea is apparently achieving its goal by working, albeit reluctantly but certainly skillfully, through the six-party talks in Beijing. Taiwan, however, is achieving less security and worse relationships with both Beijing and Washington, the latter being Taiwan’s main and perhaps only major power protector. Last but not least, Pyongyang is at a strategic and historical juncture in improving relations with Washington. Taiwan is heading in the opposite direction. Although Taiwan is still America’s de facto ally in Asia, the chemistry between the Bush administration and Chen Shui-bian is rapidly heading south.

Say No to Washington

Chen Shui-bian has scored several “firsts” in the relentless UN drive that has marked hislast year as Taiwan’s president. For the first time, Chen’s UN bid was made — twice in July (July 19 and July 27) and then officially in September during the annual UN session — under the name Taiwan, not “Republic of China.” The UN rejected all three bids according to its long-standing one-China policy (the 1971 UN Resolution 2758). Chen, however, vows to continue his highly provocative effort until the island becomes a full UN member.

After the failed UN bid in July, Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) unveiled on August 1 an unprecedented draft “normal country resolution,” arguing that “Taiwan and China are not under the jurisdiction of each other.” The timing of the resolution’s release was also provocative: the first day of August, which is the Mainland’s armed forces day. In mid-September, half a million people marched for Taiwan’s UN membership in Taiwan when the world body held its annual meeting in New York City. A referendum on UN membership, the first in the history of Taiwan, is scheduled to be held next March, in conjunction with Taiwan’s presidential election.

Perhaps the most significant “first” is Chen’s open defiance of Washington. Prior to Taiwan’s latest UN bid, the United States sent out clear and strong messages through both public and private channels that that the referendum would unnecessarily raise tensions with China. A State Department statement in June warned that the United States “opposes any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan’s status unilaterally.” In late August, the Bush administration even scaled down Chen’s “transit” through U.S. territory (usually an overnight stopover in a major U.S. city) to a few hours of refueling in Alaska on his way to visit some Central American nations.

On September 11, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Christensen publicly warned Taiwan in a strikingly candid tone: back down or face the consequences. “Taiwan’s security is inextricably linked to the avoidance of needlessly provocative behavior,” he told an audience that included Taiwan defense officials and lawmakers. “… let me be perfectly clear: … we do not recognize Taiwan as an independent state, and we do not accept the argument that provocative assertions of Taiwan independence are in any way conducive to maintenance of the status quo.”

Christensen’s warning, however, did not seem to deter Chen. Two days later, the Taiwanese leader responded, “The United States has its interest, while we have ours. Sometimes the two do not correspond and sometimes they even clash.”

Washington’s displeasure was apparent. Chen’s UN bid comes in the midst of America’s “Iraq fatigue” and mounting pressure to withdraw from Iraq. A showdown with China over the Taiwan issue is perhaps the last thing the Bush administration wants. Ultimately, Taiwan is cheating Washington, as well as the rest of the world — all, ironically, in the name of democracy. One wonders if a democracy should be held to a higher, not lower, ethical standard!

Essentially, both Chen and the DPP have tossed away Chen’s March 2000 “four NOs” pledge to the United States that he as Taiwan’s president would not declare independence, not change the national name, not push for inclusion of sovereignty themes in the constitution, and not promote a referendum to change the status quo regarding independence and unification. Taiwan’s current move for UN recognition under the name Taiwan is perhaps the last shoe to drop since early 2006 when Chen scrapped Taiwan’s National Unification Council and National Unification Guidelines — two symbolic elements of the island’s lip-service to the one-China posture.

Cheating, however, comes with a cost. Ultimately, someone will pay some price for this cheating on the grand scale.

In the Name of Democracy

The pluralistic setting in Taiwan guarantees that the island’s politics will be complicated. The current race for greater international recognition is also being fueled by several other factors. One is the DPP’s accelerated effort to desinify the island, which divides population and fuels hostility with the mainland. It remains to be seen how the dilution of the island’s Chinese culture will gain any tangible results for Taiwan. The island may change its name, as Michael Jackson did his face. But it cannot sail away from the Mainland.

Another factor is the super-charged campaign for the March 2008 presidential election. Candidates from both sides — the ruling DPP and its opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) — are either committed to altering the status quo across the Taiwan Strait or compelled not to commit political suicide by openly opposing such a dangerous slide toward a showdown with the Mainland.

Perhaps no issue other than the so-called referendum on the UN bid — the strangest such referendum in the history of democracy — demonstrates the blindness of Taiwan’s politics. For all students and practitioners of democracy, a referendum is an instrument in a democracy to resolve disputes between political forces regarding some crucial issues when the normal political process fails to reach consensus. The ruling DPP and other Taiwan elites, however, are in almost unanimous agreement regarding the issue of Taiwan’s UN membership. The real purpose of the referendum, therefore, lies somewhere else. This childish ploy puzzled Taiwan’s long-time friend Randy Schriver, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state and now a fellow at the pro-Taiwan American Enterprise Institute. Why would Taiwan want to hold a national referendum on an issue that has already won the support of more than 70% of Taiwan’s populace, asked Schriver in early August.

Each political party in Taiwan, therefore, seems to be carefully designing and orchestrating its own game plan for next March’s presidential election. Both sidesplug their ears to outside inputs, be they from Washington or Beijing. Together, an internal and democratic chemistry in Taiwan is driving the geo-strategic vehicle of regional stability down a steep slope toward a result that is in the interests of nobody, including the Taiwanese.

The Dog that Does Not Bark

While Washington is doing the bad cop’s job to restrain its ally from going wild, it is Beijing that has perhaps the biggest stake in this UN-politicking between Taiwan and Washington. So far, Beijing’s reaction to the Taiwan UN fever has been remarkably reserved. In his speech to the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Secretary General Hu Jintao did not even mention the word referendum. Instead, Hu called for consultation to end the state of hostility across the Taiwan Strait and signing a peace accord in order to make progress toward a new cross-strait relationship of peace and development. The door for a more peaceful and mutually beneficial compromise on the Taiwan issue remains wide open, despite UN fever on the island. It is, however, naïve to perceive this as a sign that China does not care. Nor should it be interpreted that the Mainland is not prepared militarily in the event of crisis. An independent Taiwan is unacceptable to any regime on the mainland, be it traditional, communist, or democratic.

Beijing’s current posture is based at least on two considerations. First, any heavy-handed response to Taiwan’s UN drive may be counter-productive, given the past experience. Second, Beijing expects that Washington will be able to restrain Taiwan, similar to what Beijing has done in the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear issue. Beijing never officially makes the linkage between the Korea and Taiwan cases. Reciprocity, however, is the essence of inter-state relations. The experience in managing the Korean issue, led by China, offers both hope and certain conceptual framework for managing the Taiwan issue, though the two cases are very different. The bottom-line is that there are, and should be, limits to the freedom of action for one’s allies, official or de facto. Regional and world stability should be placed above alliance relations as well as narrow national interests.

It is unclear if Washington will be able to manage the issue. Beijing’s ability to steer the six-party talks toward a positive path is by no means a short-term strategy. As early as the 1980s, China’s Korea policies had evolved toward a more even-handed posture despite its official alliance relations with the DPRK. Since then, China has made clear that it opposes any destabilizing action on the peninsula, whether it comes from the south or north. Despite all of its effort to curb Taiwan’s UN fever, Washington still has a long way to go to get to where China is on the Korean issue. Taiwan’s current open defiance to Washington may well be the natural outcome of continuous U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a direct violation of the August 14 communiqué in 1984 signed when President Reagan visited China.

There are still months before Taiwan’s presidential election will put the island again on political overdrive. Washington’s ability and sincerity in restraining Taiwan will be put to a severe test. Before that point, anything can happen. Even so, Beijing appreciates all the U.S. efforts conducive to peace and stability in the region and genuinely hopes Washington’s endeavor will lead to a win-win-win situation for all three sides.

Such expectations are not just from a minority of the political elite in China. In an academic conference in San Francisco in mid-July, a Chinese scholar claimed, loud and clear, that a harmonious world according to China needs a strong and prosperous United States. The statement was greeted with the longest and loudest applause from the 100-plus audience gathered for the 20th annual meeting of the Association of Chinese Political Studies (ACPS), the largest annual gathering of Chinese political scientists around the world.

A successful soft landing of the Taiwan issue in the next 10 months (until after the 2008 Olympics) will further deepen the vast reservoir of good will among the 1.3 billion Chinese people toward America and American people. They would, perhaps more than any other peoples in the world, like to see the continuity of the Pax Americana. The alternative is simply unthinkable in the era of weapons of mass destruction, which allows very little margin of error for political elites on all sides.

Yu Bin is a senior fellow for the Shanghai Institute of American Studies and director of East Asian studies at Wittenberg University, Ohio. He can be reached at byu@wittenberg.edu.