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The Value of the Status Quo

March 19, 2004

With adroit political maneuvering, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has closed the gap with his previously front-running opponent as they march to Saturday's presidential election and the island nation's first referendum on its future. But if Chen wins, he will need to repair relations with the United States. Even more important, he must deal better with China, whose Communist rulers again worry that the island is pushing to formally become independent.

Soon after taking office, President Bush promised to do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself. But in December, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao beside him, Bush said he opposed any unilateral attempts by Chen to change the status quo. It's a realistic understanding that, with U.S. troops spread thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington does not need another military expedition. What the U.S. does need now is China's continued help in trying to woo North Korea away from nuclear weapons. Beijing also can be helpful in pushing Pakistan to keep improving relations with India.

The U.S. properly has been evenhanded in the Taiwan-China situation; it told China that to reduce tensions, it should redirect missiles aimed at Taiwan.

Those missiles are the ostensible reason for the referendum Chen managed to get on the ballot, asking voters whether Taiwan should upgrade its military defenses and open talks with Beijing to improve relations. The opposition Nationalist Party fought the referendum and wants a less-confrontational stance with the mainland. It also hopes its candidate, Lien Chan, will oust Chen.

The Chinese denunciation of Chen four years ago made him more popular with Taiwanese voters and helped him win the election. The island operates as an independent state, but China considers it a breakaway province that some day must be reunited with the mainland.

China periodically persuades other nations to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and turn to Beijing instead, as Washington did in 1979. But China has not helped its cause with the inept rule of Hong Kong by Beijing's hand-picked officials who have run the former British colony after the return of sovereignty to China in 1997. Pro-democracy protests by Hong Kong residents reflect their fears that Beijing will try to deprive them of their freedoms.

China this month increased its denunciations of Hong Kong activists, while toning down its criticism of the Taiwan election. The best solution would be for China to imitate Taiwan and become a market-driven democracy. That unfortunately is many years away.

For now, the status quo best serves the interests of China, Taiwan and the U.S. Trade between the island and the mainland keeps increasing, as does investment in China by the people of Taiwan. Tampering with relations would be dangerous for both sides, and both need to do a better job of talking with each other without resorting to military bravado.

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