January 31st 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: More surprises likely in Queensland poll

EDITORIAL: The dark side of the Internet

TRANSPORT: Waterfall crash report indicts NSW State Rail Authority

CANBERRA OBSERVED : Vultures circle wounded Democrats

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Paper children / The peripatetics / The serious people we are losing

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Mixed outcome on same-sex bill

ECONOMY: Amend Trade Practices Act to protect small business

Super rethink needed (letter)

Population: quality, not quantity (letter)

Upgrade our rail system (letter)

FAMILY: Fatherhood and marriage - a vital connection

COMMENT: Castro's legacy: the New Left

TAIWAN: March election a key issue in China

TRADE: NAFTA - lessons for Australia

BOOKS: DIGNIFIED AND EFFICIENT: The British Monarchy in the Twentieth Century

BOOKS: A NEW CITY: Photographs of Melbourne's Land Boom, edited by Ian Morrison

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March election a key issue in China

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, January 31, 2004
There's been a lot of fuss about Taiwan lately. What is going on? It all boils down to the fact that Taiwan has been an independent country for the past 50 years in all but name, but mainland China still claims the island to be part of China.

A lot of the fuss can be put down to inept United States diplomacy - seemingly promising unequivocal support and then seeking assistance of China in a number of areas, necessitating a compromise on Taiwan.


The US inconsistency is that old contest in US foreign policy between the realists and the idealists. The realists are those who follow a traditional foreign policy of balancing aims and possibilities. The idealists in this case are the neo-conservatives grouped around think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and William Kristol at the Weekly Standard.

For them, Taiwan is a gallant little democratic island standing against the Communist Chinese bully. This is no doubt true, but it does not form a good base of policy, taking the realities of Taiwan's local politics into account.

Taiwan's President Chen is a nationalist - a Taiwanese nationalist. His policy is to seek a complete break from China, in name and fact. This policy is supported by about one-third of the Taiwan electorate. The vast majority wants a continuation of the de facto independence and a peaceful life. The number of people who want reunification with China on China's terms - namely, a "one country, two systems" model, as in the case of Hong Kong, is a small proportion of the electorate, perhaps five percent at most.

President Chen has proposed to have a referendum on whether Taiwan should object to having some 500 Chinese missiles aimed at it - hardly controversial, one would think. But this is commonly seen as a prelude to a referendum on Taiwan's status as an independent country - grounds, the Chinese say, for an invasion.

As for the Americans, in the recent meeting of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and US President George W. Bush in the White House, Bush said "We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo. And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decision unilaterally that change the status quo, which we oppose."

In reply, China's Wen said "We very much appreciate the position adopted by President Bush towards the latest news and developments in Taiwan; that is, the attempt to resort to referendums of various kinds as an excuse to pursue Taiwan independence. We appreciate the position of the US Government."

Basic right

In response, Taiwan's President Chen said, "Referendums are a universal value and a basic human right. The founding spirit of America should demand that the authorities in Beijing openly renounce the use of force against Taiwan. The founding spirit of America should be to support the diligent pursuit of democratic reform and deepening by the 23 million people of Taiwan."

The truth is that no-one really wants to go to war over a referendum. China is concentrating on its economic development and any war would cut off the supply of foreign capital it needs to develop its industries and deny it vital export markets.

The Americans, occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a potential crisis in Korea, certainly don't want a war in the Taiwan Strait. As for Chen, he wants to rile the Chinese sufficiently to launch at least a rhetorical broadside against Taiwan, which he calculates will cast him as a brave little Taiwanese standing up to the mighty force of big brother China.

Chen's strategy is aimed at gaining him re-election in the presidential race, not to cause a war.

The opposing "pan-blue" alliance is formed of the Kuomintang or Nationalist party and a KMT breakaway, the People First Party. They have been consistently ahead in the polls for the upcoming presidential election, but Chen's strategy of stirring the pot with China has been swinging the poll figures his way.

He hopes the election will boil down to a poll between the native-born Taiwanese, who form some 80 per cent of the population, and those who are seeking an accommodation with the mainland - namely the "pan-blue" alliance.

But Taiwan is more and more dependent on China, which is now Taiwan's main export market and has absorbed some $200 billion in Taiwan investment. The election on March 20 for President sees Lien Chan of the KMT as candidate for the "pan-blue" alliance and his running mate is the charismatic James Soong of the PFP. The "pan-blues" are behaving as if they have the election in the bag, but it is most unwise to underestimate Chen as a campaigner.

In all this, the major winner is China. They have a commitment from the US that it opposes - as against the previous "does not support" - Taiwan independence.

Jeff Babb

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