Taiwan’s delicate status
quo the key to peace

Australian Financial Review 19th March 2004

Hopefully this week-end’s elections won’t change the big picture, writes Des Moore

Uninvited intervention in another's domestic affairs is forbidden under international law. Frustrating, since quite often those affairs affect Australia's national interests. An example is tomorrow’s presidential election and two referendums in Taiwan.

There, the independence-minded President Chen Shui-bian could well be unseated by opposition party chairman Lien Chan, who favours a 'one China' approach. That would suit Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a province of China, and also Australia, which has no interest in seeing hostilities erupt in the Taiwan Straits.

But accompanying the election, and quite likely to be carried, are two referendums asking whether Taiwan should boost its defences against China's 500 missiles aimed at Taiwan, and whether Taiwan should enter into peace and stability talks with Peking. That would increase concerns all round.

For though the referendums seem innocuous, China is worried that they will pave the way to future referendums on independence and a new constitution.

China's President Hu Jintao, in our parliament last October, said "The Chinese Government and people look to Australia for a constructive role" in securing the reunification of Taiwan with China. He also urged that we seek common ground with China and learn to accept that China had different values.

One interpretation of those admonitions is that China wants us to accept China as it is, see things its way, and do as it wants; and then we'll get what we want: a preferred position in China's regard - and trade.

While not crawling as low as that, perhaps Australia should nevertheless play "a constructive role" over Taiwan, by vigorously pushing Taiwan (as some have been urging) to work genuinely for early reunification, almost whatever Beijing's terms.

Some see that as already Australia's duty, arising from our 1972 recognition of the People's Republic of China (PRC). But Australia then went only so far as to "acknowledge" that the position of Beijing was that Taiwan was a province of China; we took no position ourselves on that claim. And still don't.

But if Australia therefore has no duty to bulldoze Taiwan into accepting Beijing's embrace, where does Australia's national interest lie - with Peking's wish to reincorporate Taiwan, or with Taiwan's growing wish for independence?

The reality is that China in the last 109 years has governed Taiwan only for four - and they before the PRC's advent; that Taiwan today is a functioning democracy with a strong economy; that it is in effect already an independent state, lacking only the trappings of independence. Why not recognise that reality?

Because the reality also is that Peking claims the right to reincorporate its renegade province forcibly, and asserts that it will exercise that right if Taiwan declares independence.

Fortunately, the further reality is that both Peking and Taipei are prepared to live with the status quo - even while each loudly proclaims it is not, and strengthens itself militarily.

Australia's interest, in accord with that further reality, is clearly to see the status quo continue. That means our using what influence we have to see to it that Beijing does not set a date certain for Taiwan's reincorporation, and that Taiwan does not declare independence.

Our interest is shared by others, including the USA, with President Bush recently describing the referenda as "unnecessary", having earlier stated that "We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo".

That formula, though new, was not a shift in America's position but rather encapsulated neatly America's long-time, unstated, conditional promise - the promise that it would defend Taiwan against forcible Chinese takeover, on condition that Taiwan did not provoke China by declaring independence.

Not only for that reason is Taiwan most unlikely to declare independence. Another is that an independence decision would be followed by plummeting domestic and international investor confidence in a Taiwan thenceforward in constant danger of invasion.

Yet another reason is what would not follow an independence declaration: the recognition of that declaration by important others. For who would recognise, knowing that China would immediately break relations with it?

So if America were ever to find itself at war with China over Taiwan, that - unless Taiwan had convinced itself that China could not successfully invade Taiwan - would be not because of Taiwan's actions but because China had not only lost patience with the status quo but positively wanted to try conclusions with America.

If that unlikely day should ever come, Australia's interest would not lie in a Chinese victory; and Australia's duty - to itself, not to the USA - would be to do what we could to prevent it.