TAIWAN: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Ball in Beijing's court for Taiwan's WHO entry
, October 25, 2008
China has a thousand missiles aimed at Taiwan and exercises a de facto veto over the island-state's entry into UN-sponsored organisations, writes Jeffry Babb.The United States has reaffirmed the crucial role of Taiwan in its Asian strategy by approving a multi-billion-dollar arms package to strengthen the island's defences against mainland China.
Washington is required by the Taiwan Relations Act, which governs relations between the two nations, to supply Taiwan sufficient weapons to counter Beijing's armed forces.
When President Jimmy Carter recognised Beijing as the government of all China, such was the outrage in the US Congress over dumping a loyal ally that the US has remained a guarantor of Taiwan's security. Although Washington has no treaty obligation to put its own forces in harm's way to defend Taiwan, in reality the US has repeatedly deployed carrier task forces in waters near Taiwan in times of tension.
The new arms package, which has already been approved by Taiwan's legislature, includes anti-tank weapons, Patriot missiles and attack helicopters.
Taipei has also requested new additions to its submarine fleet to replace its ancient and toothless US vessels, which have been augmented by more modern Dutch-built submarines but need further upgrading. The US has not as yet moved on this request, as submarines are escalatory weapons with the ability to go in for the kill against the Chinese navy.
Action on the arms request had been delayed for several months during the Beijing Olympics. China responded to the US announcement with the usual bluster and cancelled some military confidence-building exercises with the Americans. But apart from producing more verbiage, there is not much more Beijing can do while the US retains its role as paramount power in the East Asian region.
Taiwan also could do with some luck in its diplomatic ventures. The self-governing island is formally recognised as the legitimate government of all China by 23 countries, mainly developing nations in Latin America, the Pacific and Africa.
Beijing insistently campaigns to peel off Taiwan's remaining diplomatic allies and offers substantial economic incentives to those nations which change their allegiances. Shocks such as the loss of long-term African diplomatic ally Malawi earlier in the year have not encouraged Taipei in its efforts to establish international diplomatic "breathing space".
Although new President Ma Ying-jeou promised a "new era" in cross-Taiwan Strait relations, in truth he has little to show for his conciliatory policies towards Beijing. Direct weekend flights from mainland China to Taiwan, which were supposed to save Taiwan's ailing tourism industry, have brought only a trickle of visitors so far. A visit by a high-level mainland official has been stalled over how he should address Taiwan's premier.
China still has over a thousand missiles aimed at Taiwan. Although over a million people from Taiwan live and work in mainland China, and Taiwan is mainland China's largest investor, Taiwan largely missed the bus on the China boom. The eight inward-looking years under former President Chen Shui-bian were an economic disaster for Taiwan. The inevitable slow-down in cross-strait trade and investment, as growth slows in China, can only hurt Taiwan.
As for President Ma, who took office in May this year, his approval rating has slumped to 25 per cent, and the stock market, as elsewhere, is collapsing. Ma needs something to show for his goodwill towards Beijing.
Ma raised expectations that, after Chen's introverted and scandal-ridden rule, things would be better. Chen, who is fighting allegations that his wife shipped over $20 million out of Taiwan to various tax havens, is widely detested, but remains a force. In fact, he is already campaigning vigorously to challenge Ma for the presidency in 2012, even though he was forced out of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that he helped found.
The atmospherics in Taiwan's politics can change very rapidly. President Ma desperately needs a success if his conciliatory cross-strait policy is to survive. The people of Taiwan could easily swing against him if he cannot deliver on his promises. The economy is weak, and he can only hope to succeed in the international sphere. Will Ma make diplomatic progress and restore some national pride?
The surest way would be for Taiwan to gain admission to an international body like the World Health Organization (WHO). Taiwan has played down its bid for full entry to the United Nations and instead is aiming for membership of UN-sponsored bodies where its participation would be acceptable to Beijing.De facto veto
At present, Beijing exercises a de facto veto over Taiwan's entry into UN-sponsored organisations. Ma must not be seen to be surrendering to Beijing. Unless Beijing shows some flexibility and goodwill, Ma and Beijing will both suffer - and the possibility of a lasting peace across the Taiwan Strait will retreat for years to come.
Taiwan's representatives are quietly confident of a breakthrough. Any other result would be bad for everyone with a stake in peace in the East Asian region.- Jeffry Babb was until last year a Taipei-based journalist.