David Frum April 28th, 2007 at 12:00 am
Just a few hundred feet up the slope from a complex of new luxury apartment buildings, a battery of Patriot-2 missiles stands ready on five minutes notice to intercept their share of the nearly 1,000 Chinese missiles aimed at this island.
In the officers’ mess of one of Taiwan’s efficient French-built frigates, a worried admiral describes the rapid growth of China’s fleet, which will soon include its first aircraft carrier.
A few steps from the president’s office, an intelligence officer mentions his personal worry: a Chinese commando raid to kidnap Taiwan’s elected leaders and paralyze its government.
Alarmism? Well look at things from the Taiwanese point of view. Since 1989, Taiwan has evolved into an exemplary self-governed democracy. Yet the Chinese rulers warn that if Taiwan’s leaders ever formally declare this glaringly obvious fact, China will unleash military force against the people of this island.
Instead, China demands that Taiwan submit to mainland authority by a “set date.” China offers to respect Taiwan’s separate “system.” But it made the same promise to Hong Kong–and then proceeded to snuff out all vestiges of real democracy when it took over in 1997.
Happily for Taiwan, 170 kilometers of water separate their large island from China. And for many years to come, the strongest force on those waters will belong to the United States. AmericaÕs Pacific Command can make the same promise to the Taiwanese that Admiral St.
Vincent once made to the Younger Pitt: “We donÕt say they will not come. We only say they will not come by water.”
Welcome as American protection is, however, it may already be obsolete. The gravest threat to Taiwan’s independence is not military.
China is a huge and growing economic power, with a well-earned reputation for vindictiveness. Most countries very reasonably wish to avoid offending it. Ever more emphatically, the Chinese are insisting that the price of their goodwill is the isolation of Taiwan.
For example: Taiwan’s most direct economic competitor is South Korea. About 70% of Taiwan’s exports are products that are also manufactured in South Korea, notably flat panel display screens. South Korea has just signed a free trade agreement with the United States that will allow almost all South Korean products into the U.S. market duty free. That agreement confers a substantial competitive advantage on South Korean products.
Taiwan, historically a much freer trader than South Korea, would dearly wish to sign a free trade agreement with the United States, too. Yet the United States declines even to begin talks. Why? In large part, because China furiously objects.
It is not just Taiwan’s trading partners that are subject to Chinese pressure. So too is Taiwan itself.
Taiwan is the largest foreign investor in China. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. Many Taiwanese have family on the mainland. About one million Taiwanese live there.
Yet the only way to get from Taipei to Shanghai or Canton is via Hong Kong–a route that transforms what should be a 50-minute flight into a seven-hour ordeal. Yet China will not allow direct flights unless the agreement acknowledges China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.
China uses its economic power to intervene inside the Taiwanese political system. Businessmen with holdings on the mainland are pressured to support anti-independence politicians.
The whole world has a stake in China’s peaceful evolution. But what does it say about China’s future direction if it cannot tolerate the existence of a democratically elected government on its borders? Today, China bullies a small island nation. What will tomorrow’s more powerful China do?
China has shown that it will quit acting the bully when faced with united international pressure. When China was seeking to join the World Trade Organization, it agreed, as the price of admission, to allow Taiwan to join, too. Now China must be made to understand that it cannot continue to threaten violence against its democratic neighbour.
And this is a very good year to send that message. China hosts the Olympics in 2008. It wants to present an appealing face to the world. It has even had to accept that Taiwanese athletes must be allowed to attend, if only under the name “Chinese Taipei.”
Well, if China can welcome autonomous Taiwanese athletes, why cannot the United States, Canada and the other democracies welcome visits from Taiwanese politicians? Why cannot uniformed military personnel visit Taiwan? The United States sells weapons to Taiwan. Why not train with those weapons together?
The old China lobby used to pretend–absurdly–that Taipei ruled China. It is equally absurd for the new China lobby to pretend that China rules Taipei. Let’s all recognize reality. The name of that reality is not “Chinese Taipei.” It is Taiwan.