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Sunday, October 31, 2004

Asia Times Online - News from greater China; Hong Kong and Taiwan > Taiwan reels from Powell's anti-sovereignty 'goof'

By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - Taiwan is still recovering from something approaching a collective heart attack over remarks made by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Beijing this past week. Powell was in the Chinese capital principally to urge China to put pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear-weapons program. While there he gave interviews to two cable TV networks, CNN International and China's Phoenix TV, at Beijing's China World Hotel.

Most of the interviews consisted of the familiar retread of the US "one China" policy. Powell's interpretation of this policy, as set out in the Three Communiques signed with China in the 1970s and early 1980s (defining their relationship), tends to be the most conservative of anybody's in the current US administration - he sticks most strictly to the letter of the documents.

In general, therefore, Powell's saying anything about Taiwan usually annoys a large swath of opinion on the island, if only because the Communiques, in as much as they address Taiwan at all, uphold a view of Taiwan-China relations that might have been acceptable to dictators in Taipei and Beijing at the time, but about which the Taiwanese themselves were never consulted, and which now is seen as hugely anachronistic.

This time around, however, was something special. In interviews on Tuesday, Powell spoke in unusually harsh terms on the topic of Taiwan's sovereignty. "Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy," he said.

In Taipei this was regarded as the harshest, most decisive expression of this principle made for some time, at least during the administration of US President George W Bush. And it was a remark that managed to annoy just about everyone, irrespective of where he or she stood on the political spectrum.

After all, the fundamental divide in Taiwan, between unificationists and Taiwanese-independence seekers, is an argument about eventual goals; it is not an argument about current status:
The unificationists think Taiwan is a truncated remnant of the Republic of China, founded in 1912, whose government was forced to move to Taiwan in 1949. Just because the land area it controls might be smaller and the government has moved does not mean that the pre-1949 sovereign state ever went out of business, and the world should recognize this. The communists, by founding a new country in 1949, have in effect created two current Chinas, and the world needs to accommodate itself to this reality.
The independence lobby maintains that Taiwan was never returned to China by treaty after the end of the Japanese colonial era, that it was illegally occupied by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) regime until the early 1990s, when democratic elections were held, in effect constituting an act of self-determination that established a new and sovereign country.

The current Democratic Progressive Party government tended to take a middle course between these two positions, but if there is one thing that all sides are agreed upon it is that the Taipei regime is independent and sovereign. So Powell's denial of this managed to raise hackles everywhere, much to the detriment of some important US plans (which we will address below).

But it was Powell's subsequent remarks that left Taiwan in a state of shock. "We want to see both sides not take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a reunification that all parties are seeking," Powell told CNN.

The problem here is twofold. While it might have been true at the time the Three Communiques were negotiated that both governments sought unification, the people of Taiwan were never asked if unification was something they wanted. And in fact they overwhelmingly don't want it. The most recent poll by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council - the government ministry that deals with China policy - indicates that fewer than 2% of Taiwanese want unification now and only about 11% want it at all. (This is compared with 6% who want a formal declaration of independence immediately and 18% who want it some time in the future.) Forty percent of all Taiwanese prefer the status quo now/decision later option, while18% want the status quo to last forever.

So, apropos of Powell, one simple fact is that not all parties are seeking unification. Forty-three percent of Taiwanese (pro-independence plus pro-status quo forever) don't want it at any price and another 40% don't even want to consider it until China has changed into a democracy - the essence of the status quo now/decision later position.

But there is another problem on top of this, which is that it is a long-held US position that it does not take sides on any particular outcome in negotiations between Taiwan and China, nor does it act as a mediator; it only insists that the issues between them be solved peacefully. And yet Powell's remarks suggest that the United States does in fact favor one particular outcome - reunification - and, of course, that just happens to be the outcome least favored by most Taiwanese.

Opinion in Taiwan on Tuesday after Powell's remarks was running red-hot. Foreign Minister Mark Chen told legislators, "The US has told us not to give them surprises, but this time it is the US giving us a surprise. This is unfair. Taiwan and the US share the same interests and we should build mutual trust. But Powell's talk has breached mutual trust."

Not only that, but it has damaged US interests. Washington, concerned that Taiwan is falling behind as China's military budget soars, has been trying to persuade Taiwan to purchase an US$18 billion arms package for almost three years. A bill for the budget is currently in the legislature, where it has been held up by the opposition, which claims that the weapons are outrageously expensive and not what Taiwan needs. The government has been trying to get the bill through the legislature before it takes a month off to campaign for elections on December 11. Tuesday was the last chance to send the bill to committee. No sooner had Taipei received the news of Powell's interview than the opposition simply refused to deal with the bill, which means it is suspended at least until January and, unless the pro-government parties win the majority in the legislature they now lack, it may simply be dead.

The opposition is widely portrayed by the pro-government side as not wanting the weapons because it simply does China's bidding, and naturally China is against the package. But Powell's remarks might have turned the opinion of a dangerously large number of pro-government supporters against the bill.

A woman in a coffee shop told this reporter on Tuesday evening: "I used to see the arms deal as something like paying protection, but their weapons probably don't work - at least Patriot [anti-missile defense system] - and [I thought] they will help us out if we need it. But after this, they can forget their weapons. Why should we spend the money when the future has been decided anyway?"

A newspaper editorialist remarked: "Look, the last thing the US needs if it wants to be a power in this region is Taiwan controlled by China. You would think Powell, as an ex-general, would know that. So maybe we should offer China a confederation deal and use of the Tsoying naval base [Taiwan's biggest base, situated in Kaohsiung]. The Americans and the Japanese would wet themselves. They obviously need a sharp reminder where their strategic interest lies."

Since Tuesday, in fact almost since the CNN broadcast, the US has been trying to put things right. The State Department said the same day that Powell had not meant "reunification" - that was a slip of the tongue. What he had meant was "resolution." Wednesday saw the Taiwan Foreign Ministry summoning US representative to Taipei Douglas Paal, a man before whom it usually quails, to "clarify the US position". Paal said the US position hadn't changed but he could not say why Powell had used the word "reunification". A clearly still very angry Foreign Minister Mark Chen later said that Powell's remarks had damaged Taiwan's democracy and hurt its status, and he demanded a US restatement of the "Six Assurances".

The Six Assurances, enunciated on July 14, 1982, made clear that the United States:
Had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Had not agreed to hold prior consultations with the Chinese government on arms sales to the Republic of China on Taiwan.
Would not play any mediation role between Taiwan and China.
Had not agreed to revise the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
Had not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan.
Would not exert pressure on the Republic of China on Taiwan to enter negotiations with the People's Republic of China.

Currently the situation is that both the United States and Taiwan know that Powell goofed badly. The US wants to pass it off as a simple slip of the tongue. But Taiwan is well aware that China is likely to ignore a denial and make as much hay from Powell's remark as it can. Indeed, on Wednesday Zhang Mingqing, spokesman for the Chinese government's Taiwan Affairs Office, told a press conference, "Some people have said Powell made a slip of the tongue, but I don't believe it."

Taiwan well knows that in this game, something once said can be used and exploited, even if it is was said by accident. It can only be negated by categorical denial as part of a restatement of policy. This is why it wants a restatement of the Six Assurances, so the lasting impression is not that the US favors reunification but that the US will not play a role and does not favor any particular outcome. The US is reluctant to make Powell look foolish. It will be interesting to see who prevails.

Laurence Eyton is the deputy editor in chief of the Taipei Times newspaper and a columnist for the Chinese-language Taiwan Daily. He has lived and worked in Taiwan for 18 years.

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