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There Is Common Ground on Taiwan

Asia: The island nation gives up a claim to sovereignty in exchange for de facto independence.

May 08, 2000|MARVIN OTT | Marvin Ott is a professor of national security policy at the National War College. The views expressed here are his own

There has been much recent reporting and commentary--fully justified--about the growing dangers in the Taiwan Strait. But in all the talk of arms sales and possible military confrontation, almost no attention has been given to a possible diplomatic solution.

It may be easy to conclude that in the current atmosphere a workable settlement between China and Taiwan is simply out of the question. Yet for exactly that reason it is time to start thinking seriously about what a settlement might look like. The alternatives are far too costly and too dangerous. Moreover, the assumption that the differences between Beijing and Taipei are unbridgeable may not stand up to close examination.

What are the likely minimum requirements of the three parties to the dispute? For China, it must be a firm assurance that Taiwan will not be lost beyond recovery, that a credible brake can be put on the island's perceived momentum toward sovereign independence. For Taiwan, it must be the preservation of the status quo of complete autonomy, amounting to de facto (but not de jure) independence. For the U.S., it must be the prevention of a military attack against Taiwan by China and with it the avoidance of a war in the Taiwan Strait.

A formula that would meet these absolute minimum requirements might comprise the following elements:

* Taiwan would explicitly recognize/acknowledge that there is one China and Taiwan is included within it and that sovereign independence is not a goal.

* Taiwan would abandon its efforts to secure membership in the United Nations or any other international organization in which membership is confined solely to sovereign nation-states.

(If necessary, these first two measures could be accompanied by certain symbolic gestures, such as flying the flag of the People's Republic of China from the highest point over the principal legislative and executive buildings in Taipei, but Beijing has already suggested even such a step may be unnecessary.)

* China would explicitly recognize/acknowledge that the authorities on Taiwan would retain complete and unchallenged control over the current territory and surrounding waters of Taiwan and over foreign and domestic policy involving the island--including the right to enter into international agreements and join some U.N. agencies. Taiwan would be designated not as a province or special zone but simply as "Taiwan, People's Republic of China."

In sum, Taiwan's de facto independence would remain exactly as it has been. Taiwan would retain a defense capability at whatever level it chose and could afford. The U.S. would retain its obligations to supply Taiwan with military equipment under the Taiwan Relations Act and reserve the right to come to Taiwan's defense, if necessary.

Why might China agree to such a formulation? It would represent a diplomatic, juridical and symbolic victory for the "one China" principle and would foreclose sovereign independence for Taiwan. It also would provide a much-needed opportunity to save face by allowing Beijing to back out of the strategic cul de sac in which it finds itself. Twice Beijing has tried to use undisguised intimidation to shape electoral outcomes on Taiwan. Twice it has failed and in the process has demonstrated an inability to understand the mentality of a free people.

China badly needs to adopt a new strategy designed to eventually win Taiwan's acquiescence with carrots, not sticks. A strategy based on economic integration over the long term has real potential for success whereas an intimidation strategy does not.

Why would Taiwan agree? Simply put, Taiwan would gain what it values most: de facto independence. It would defuse the current crisis. It would allow Taiwan's new president to pursue a multitude of practical bridge-building initiatives, with China secure in the knowledge that the island's core interests were protected.

Why would the U.S. agree? This formulation would stop the spiral toward war while preserving Taiwan's current status, thereby meeting Washington's basic objectives. If, in the future, Taiwan reaches a voluntary agreement with China that brings the island under Beijing's effective control, the U.S. should be able to accept it. America does not have a vital geopolitical interest in the perpetual separation of Taiwan from China.

The leadership in Beijing has stated it is willing to discuss virtually any issue with an open mind as long as the "one China" principle is adhered to. Taiwan President-elect Chen Shui-bian has said he is prepared to discuss all questions related to China as long as the final word rests with the electorate of Taiwan. Both positions are compatible with this proposed settlement. Such a settlement also would serve a critical need of all the players: It would buy time--lots of it.

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