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The U.S. Won't Take Yes for an Answer From Taiwan

An offer of troops for Iraq bumps up against geopolitical realities.

May 16, 2004|David DeVoss | David DeVoss writes about Asian trade and politics for the East-West News Service in Los Angeles.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — As the United States inches painfully toward its goal of a democratic Iraq, many of its coalition allies are heading for the exits. Spain's abrupt departure was quickly followed by the withdrawal of Honduras. The Dominican Republic's contingent is packing its bags, Poland's new government is moving quietly toward the door, and Thailand has said it will leave if any of its soldiers are attacked. Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization spurned a security role following the planned transfer of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30.

There is one ally, however, that remains steadfast in support of U.S. foreign policy -- Taiwan. And it's willing to dispatch troops to Iraq to demonstrate its support. "The government is studying the feasibility of sending up to 5,000 Taiwanese marines to Iraq to fight alongside America and other international forces," said Parris Chang, chairman of the parliament's foreign relations committee.

"I can't predict Washington's reaction," Chang added. "We offered $200 million to help defray the cost of the first Gulf War, but the money was rejected."

You might think Washington would welcome any offer of assistance. But were the U.S. to accept Taiwan's offer, it would incur the wrath of China, which insists its island neighbor is not a real country but a renegade province. China wants Taiwan to accept Beijing's sovereignty or, failing that, exist as a depoliticized economic zone on China's periphery.

Ever since 1972, when the People's Republic took the Republic of China's seat in the United Nations, Taiwan's Nationalist Party -- also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT -- has played along, espousing the notion that there is only one China, not two independent nations on either side of the Taiwan Strait. But in 2000, the KMT was defeated by the upstart Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, which rode to power on the issue of Taiwanese nationalism. Beijing responded by breaking off all political dialogue with the island and pointing 500 missiles at it.

Reelected last month in a bitterly contested and extremely close election, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian begins his second term as president this week with Taiwan-U.S. relations in flux. The American Institute in Taiwan, which functions as a shadow embassy, has all but vetted his inaugural address to ensure it doesn't antagonize China. To maintain the status quo, the administration rejected Chen's choices for director of Taiwan's mission in Washington until he appointed a cautious diplomat with close ties to the KMT.

But Chen, being democratically elected, may be unable to stop the momentum toward independence. School textbooks no longer teach that Taiwan is part of China. Passports bear the stamp "Taiwan" in addition to "Republic of China." More important, according to a recent poll conducted by the Chinese-language United Daily News, the percentage of citizens who regard themselves as Taiwanese has jumped from 16% in 1989 to 62% today, while those who identify themselves as Chinese has declined from 52% to 19%.

One of Chen's top priorities is a new constitution that would eliminate unneeded levels of bureaucracy and ensure gender equality and other human rights, which are not included in the existing document. He vows not to change his country's formal name, its anthem or flag. But both the United States and China warn that even minor tinkering with the mechanics of Taiwan's government is unacceptable.

Washington regards Beijing as an ally in the war on terror and a cordial host to six-party talks it hopes might lead to the elimination of North Korea's nuclear program. But to Taiwan, China is a bully, a view reinforced by its annual naval exercise, the main event of which is the simulated sinking of a U.S. aircraft carrier. "The fact is that Japan has no army, Seoul is preoccupied by events on the Korean peninsula and the Philippines has an air force consisting of used fighters it bought secondhand from us," said Alexander Huang, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. "In the event of military conflict, the U.S. is the only country that can help us."

Most military strategists believe that even before the U.S. went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was incapable of defending Taiwan, as required by the Taiwan Relations Act. A computer war-game exercise held every year at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., usually ends in the island's occupation by invaders. The lack of a Washington political consensus, preventing naval power from being projected in a timely manner, is how the military explains the repeated outcome.

U.S. reluctance to fight a country with 1.3 billion people may be the more basic answer. "De jure independence makes sense, especially after what's been happening in Hong Kong," said Szu-yin Ho, director of overseas affairs for the KMT. "But if China attacks, are Americans willing to shed blood for Taiwan? I'm not sure they are."

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