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A Storm in a Teacup Over Taiwan

Prepared by: Esther Pan
March 15, 2006

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Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, a leading proponent of Taiwanese independence, is at it again. On February 27 he abolished the National Unification Council (CSMonitor), a largely symbolic body intended to prepare for eventual unification with China. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that will eventually rejoin the mainland; Chen calls Taiwan an independent, sovereign country. The move to abolish the council brought a firestorm of criticism from both sides of the Taiwan Strait (BBC) and was immediately condemned by Beijing. Chinese President Hu Jintao called the move a "grave provocation" and a "dangerous step on the road toward Taiwan independence"
(Xinhua). Beijing has threatened to attack Taiwan with military force if it declares formal independence. This CFR Background Q&A examines the current China-Taiwan relationship.

Critics accuse Chen of making pro-independence moves to increase his dismal political standing at home; his approval ratings have fallen to around 20 percent. But Craig Meer, a Taipei-based journalist, says in the Asia Times that Chen's decision to abolish the unification council has exacerbated his political problems rather than helped them. And Jing Huang of the Brookings Institution says Chen has irrevocably damaged his own credibility, as well as the political future of his party, the DPP.

Washington is also integral to the conflict. After decades of "strategic ambiguity" toward Taiwan, a recent Congressional Research Service report says the United States will be pushed by both China and Taiwan to define a clearer role for itself on cross-strait relations (PDF). (For many years, the United States has committed to helping Taiwan defend itself in the event of a military attack by China.) Some experts suggest that as China and the United States move closer on a range of issues, Washington could play the referee in the conflict, restraining both Chinese aggression and Taiwanese provocation to preserve the status quo. But in his book Untying the Knot: Making Peace in the Taiwan Strait, Richard Bush—director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution—writes that the U.S. role as mediator in the conflict is "severely restricted" by its relationships with both China and Taiwan, and says it is unclear whether either side would accept the United States in such a capacity.

Robert Ross writes in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs that the increasing irrelevance of the Taiwan independence movement has removed "the only plausible cause of war" between China and the United States. But Korea's Joong Ang Daily warns in an editorial that "once the balance of power across the strait breaks down, order in the Asian Pacific region will fall into chaos. That's why we cannot take our eyes off the Taiwan Strait."

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