President Bush has painted himself into a tight little ideological corner. He supports democracy for Iraq, which is unlikely to have one for years, if ever. But he delivers a brutal slapdown to Taiwan, which has a thriving, obstreperous, young democracy, and sides with Communist heirs of Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping in China. What’s up with this?
Partly, it’s blundering by both Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and Bush. There are few international relationships more nuanced than the one among Washington, Beijing and Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party set up shop after being ousted from the Chinese mainland by Mao in 1949.
Beijing maintains that Taiwan is a renegate province, though it was never ruled by the Communist government and was a Japanese colony from 1895-1945. The U.S. signed onto this "one China" policy in conjunction with Richard Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China in 1972 and since then the three capitals have attempted the diplomatic equivalent of a threesome trying a Viennese waltz. The tempo has increased in recent years as the Taiwanese have asserted their de facto independence and have vigorously debated actually declaring it, which China says would mean war. When one party misses a step in this dance the results aren’t pretty and when two do there are slippers and rears all over the floor.
Which is where we are today.
Chen, who’s up for re-election in March, is embroiled in both factional infighting and a possible sex scandal (as with many things in Taiwan, it’s hard to tell if this is just another soap opera or something more substantial). Over on the mainland, Chen wouldn’t have this problem since he'd be the only guy on the ballot. But he’s not. So he’s doing what any good politician would, playing to his political base by proposing a referendum that would call on China to remove the estimated 500 missiles it has aimed across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait at the island and to renounce the use of force. But pushing this idea too brusquely was where Chen slipped.
China, unsurprisingly, is alarmed by the prospect of Taiwan’s first island-wide referendum because a referendum undoubtedly would be used for any formal Taiwanese declaration of independence. Further, though they’d never admit it publicly, Taiwan scares the hell out of the Beijing strongmen because its peaceful transition from Chiang Kai-shek’s police state to a functioning democracy exposes the bankruptcy of rhetoric like this, from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao: " ... China is such a huge country. It has a big population. It is very underdeveloped. So conditions are not ripe for direct elections at the higher levels." (The Chinese are, significantly, opening the political process at the neighborhood level.)
Thus, faced with the gnat-like threat of a popular vote in Taiwan (population 23 million, compared with China’s 1.2 billion) Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned in an interview last month that, "We will not sit by and do nothing when faced with provocative activities," and one of China’s top generals predicted an "abyss of war" if the referendum is held.
Faced with this totalitarian hogwash – only in this bizarre relationship could a simple expression of public sentiment be considered a cause for war -- Bush's keister thumped down resoundingly on the side of the dictators. "We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Bush said. "And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose."
Why’d he do it? Because he really needs China’s help – in reducing the enormous U.S. trade deficit with China, in helping to corral the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and for assistance in the "war on terrorism" (China has its own Muslim unrest within and along its borders).
Bush’s dichotomous behavior outraged the neoconservative wing of the Republican party and its private-sector mouthpieces, who worked so assiduously to push us into the mess in Iraq (they’re accusing Bush of appeasement!). And, though it makes me nervous indeed to agree with people like Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and William Kristol, it doesn’t play well with me, either. It’s not so much what Bush said – though it was harsh – as the way he chose to say it, with Wen contentedly at his elbow after having been greeted by a 19-gun salute on the White House lawn. Symbolism is important everywhere, and especially in Asia.
We now face the possibility that the Chinese will, at some point, overplay their hand. In addition, we have to face the reality that we will be viewed as hypocrites of the worst kind – something Bush might want to consider the next time he’s tempted to recycle his messianic proclamations about how we’re going to democratize the entire Middle East. Eventually, Bush, too, will discover that international relations never have been simple and aren’t now. That is one thing the attacks of September 11 did not change.
But why does he have to be such a slow learner?