Just in time for President Bush's trip to China next week, Beijing unveiled a new Taiwan policy. The Bush administration should remain levelheaded and resist the temptation to reduce diplomatic and military support for Taiwan in exchange for improved Sino-American relations.
This latest policy still insists that Taiwan is a part of China and eventually must be annexed, using roughly the formula that was applied to Hong Kong and Macao. But now Chinese leaders express a conviction that increasing economic integration will bring about a kind of "natural unification." To hasten the process, they may soon remove lingering obstacles to direct transportation links and even invite formerly shunned members of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party to visit.
The new policy is certainly an improvement over the previous vicious name-calling and saber-rattling. Its tenets sound reasonable. But in fact the concept of natural unification is a self-serving delusion bound to disappoint those in Beijing who see reunification on the horizon.
The new policy sounds reasonable because cross-strait economic integration is unquestionably taking place. Since 1988, about 40,000 Taiwanese firms have invested more than $50billion in China. Several hundred thousand Taiwanese citizens now live at least part of the year in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, where they run their own schools, stores, restaurants and factories. Meanwhile, young Taiwanese back home look increasingly to China as a new economic frontier.
But these developments don't herald a natural political unification. The collective identities of the Taiwanese and Chinese people remain too distinct. Contrary to popular myth, Taiwan never really has been a part of China. True, it was an outpost of the Qing Dynasty from 1684 to 1895, after which it became a colony of Japan until 1945. But the Qing Dynasty wasn't the same political or cultural entity as China.
The country that today we call China came into being in the 20th century. Its construction was marked by violent civil war and foreign invasion, unspeakable exploitation and cultural revolution. Taiwan was shielded from this chaos under Japanese occupation and later gradually became prosperous.
Collective identities don't change overnight. It is highly unlikely that economic integration will convince the Taiwanese people that they're Chinese. Their historical experiences are too different from those of people in China. In fact, since economic integration began in 1988, Taiwan's sense of its distinctiveness has increased. It is more like a process of natural separation.
Sooner or later, Beijing will be disappointed in the natural unification doctrine. When that day of reckoning arrives, it's essential that the option of attacking Taiwan militarily to achieve unnatural unification is denied by U.S. resolve.
President Bush should certainly use the upcoming summit to try to improve Sino-American relations, but not at the cost of recklessly embracing self-serving Chinese fantasies about Taiwan.