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Why Taiwan's independence must be protected

The Hill- The Right View: By David Keene June 14, 2000

Late last month, as Congress prepared to grant China its long-sought permanent normal trading status, the people of the other China on the island of Taiwan were installing a new president.

Chen Shui-bian was elected not as the candidate of the Kuomintang, the party which has run Taiwan since Nationalist Chinese forces fled the mainland back in 1949, but of the 13-year-old Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chen's victory came amidst threats of military action from the mainland if Taiwan elects the candidate of a party that refuses to accept that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of it.

The threats may or may not be real, but between the time of his election and his inaugural address on May 20, Chen softened his line on independence considerably. He pledged that, as long as Beijing resists the temptation to use military force against his country, his government will not declare independence or promote a national referendum on the question.

His problem, however, is that the question of whether the 22 million citizens of the Republic of China on Taiwan will remain free, quasi-independent and in control of one of the world's strongest economies won't be decided in Taipei, Taiwan's capital. It will be decided in Beijing and, to a lesser extent, in Washington.

Mainland China has never wavered in its stated desire to take Taiwan, which it claims as part of China. Moreover, Beijing's leaders have consistently charged that anyone who questions their right to take the island by whatever means they ultimately deem appropriate is a threat to peace in Asia.

The communist regime in Beijing has never controlled Taiwan, and few on the island are prepared to let them do so. Those on Taiwan who support reunification support it contingent on a change of regime in Beijing; they are no more willing to voluntarily surrender what they have spent generations building than are the most radical leaders of the DPP.

What the Taiwanese have built on Taiwan is awesome. Per capita income is more than $14,000 or about 18 times the per capita income on the mainland. In economic terms, Taiwan is a true world power with a huge trade surplus and the industrial capacity and human base to compete anywhere with anyone. Her people have produced about two-thirds of the notebook and laptop computers in the world, and she boasts the largest shipping company on earth.

Moreover, Chen's election and the transition of power from a party that has been in power on the island since 1949 marked the first peaceful transition of real power in Chinese history. Chen's predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, who had fostered the development of democracy on Taiwan, gracefully stepped aside after the election. The world press hailed the outgoing president as "Mr. Democracy," and those watching closely knew they were witnessing the emergence of the first free democratic state in Asia.

The United States should have been proud. After all, the Republic of China exists today only because of the protection we extended to it over the years. Just as importantly, it is one of the few nations anywhere that has done what our founders hoped many nations would do - emulate the example of the United States by creating free institutions of their own.

But many in this country aren't proud of what we helped create. They see Taiwan instead as a stumbling block, a nuisance that stands in the way of hopefully better relations with Mainland China. A lot of folks here would, in fact, like to see Taiwan vanish.

That is just what Beijing is counting on. A Chinese general was quoted last year as suggesting that he doubts if Americans want to trade Los Angeles for Taipei, and suggested that we might have to do that if we want to continue underwriting the island's security. Of course, if it becomes clear to the Chinese that our commitment to our ally on Taiwan isn't very deep, the likelihood that Beijing will resort to force against Taiwan will increase exponentially.

We cannot let that happen, for moral as well as strategic and historic reasons. The mainland regime might like to seize Taiwan, but they are not fools. They'll only unleash the Peoples Liberation Army if they think they can get away with it. Many in Congress understand this and are prepared to pass legislation underscoring our commitment to Taiwan and giving her access to the defensive military technology she needs to guarantee her own security. That legislation should pass, but we should do more.

The next administration should upgrade our relations with Taiwan by at least allowing high-ranking executive branch officials to visit the place. At present, those in this country who, in effect, have the power to decide the fate of 22 million free people aren't even allowed to visit Taiwan.

Taiwan is one of the most vibrant and free nations on earth. If the elections and economic data they can observe at a distance aren't enough maybe they'll be convinced when they discover it's easier to find a Starbucks in Taipei than in Washington.

David Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Washington-based government affairs consultant.


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