Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Taiwan Problem

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about China policy. Back in 1972, President Nixon changed the absurd U.S. policy that the Republic of China (Taipei) was the one legitimate government of all of China, both Taiwan and the mainland, to the only slightly less absurd policy that the People's Republic of China (Beijing) is the one legitimate government of all China, both Taiwan and the mainland.

Since then, the United States has made it clear that we will vigorously oppose any move by Beijing to reunite Taiwan with the mainland by military force, and indeed we continue to sell extensive armaments to the Taiwan government, even though we officially regard it as a renegade province in a civil war. Diplomacy has never been heavy on reality — one of the reasons I never pursued it as a career option — but this is an unstable situation screaming for some realpolitik.

The realities of the situation, as I see it:

  • Taipei does not control the mainland, and Beijing does not control Taiwan.

  • Taipei is never going to control the mainland, and Beijing will never convince the people of Taiwan to merge into the PRC as just another province without extreme coercion.

  • Taipei's foreign policy involvement is limited mostly to keeping Beijing out of Taiwan.

  • Taiwan's economy is dependent on capitalism, free from the sort of bureaucratic interference that is inextricably part of communism.
I see two obvious paths to reconciliation. The first, likely more practical, path is to negotiate an agreement by which the province of Taiwan will become some sort of Special Administrative Region within the People's Republic of China, similar to the SARs of Hong Kong and Macau, with considerable local autonomy. Beijing gets the triumph of reuniting China, but the people of Taiwan get to continue their prosperous commercial activities. Of course, in order to get the people of Taiwan to agree to such a deal, there must be some solid guarantees against a future "Taiwananmen Square" situation.

The second path, the lunatic wildcard if you will, is for the government of the Republic of China — established on 1911-10-10 by Dr. Sun Yat Sen — to officially recognize the fact that most of the country has parted company with the ROC government. Beijing has made it abundantly clear that they will consider any declaration of independence by Taiwan unacceptable, but what if the ROC were to grant independence to the thirty-odd provinces that comprise the PRC? "Okay, folks, civil war is officially over. 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities, and 2 special administrative regions have chosen to separate from the Republic of China. We grant their independence and recognize their government as the legitimate government of the mainland."

I harbor no illusion that option #2 would be greeted with cheers in Beijing, but it would put the PRC government in the awkward position of rejecting independence from its predecessor government.

Is there a third path? Despite the name of this blog, I can't think of one. No military solution is possible from either side. There is no democratic path to unqualified reunification. The status quo is unstable, and an economic drain especially on the ROC.

Surely in the 21st century there is some way to resolve this lingering thorn in the side of both Chinas.

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