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在危險邊緣的台灣

Living on the Edge … but Who Will Chicken out First?

Tom Plate

TAIPEI -- Such a beautiful island, vibrant, successful, delightful --- yet poised on the edge of disaster in the crosshairs of the mainland gun: Isn't there something obviously grievously wrong with the very essence of our pathetic civilization when this wondrous island might someday ---simply, conceivably, unspeakably --- disappear from the face of the political world?

When it comes to living on the edge, average Taiwanese are Olympic class. They exist, if persistent mainland China threats are to be believed, on the edge of potential extinction.

Accordingly, their president, reelected in March, must be ranked the edgiest leader in contemporary world politics. This, however, is a dubious distinction.

He recently sojourned to the United Nations in an effort to persuade that body to admit Taiwan as a member state. Fat chance. Even so, Chen Shui-bian seems to get a personal kick out of poking a stick into the angry tiger's cage. This is understandable – but also worrisome.

For one thing, sure, it sates the emotional needs of his many followers in the pro-independence Democratic People's Party. But his carefully calculated antics tease Beijing's skin to distraction and seem to keep the People's Republic of China off diplomatic balance. This is pretty cool, for the leader of a place with only 23 million people, against a place with 1.3 billion.

But -- all together -- it's a game of high-stakes chicken of the most dangerous kind. Despite its deep respect for Taiwan's extraordinary economic success, China steamily regards Taiwan as an outlaw state that needs to be brought to heel and reintegrated into larger (“Mother”) China. And despite its ever-growing economic ties and increasing dependency on China, Taiwan warily regards the mainland as a potent political communicable disease capable of infecting the prosperous and democratic island with an epidemic of Communist totalitarianism not unlike a socialist strain of SARS.

And so the continuing cross-strait contretemps is characterized by several disturbing factors.

One is that China's military buildup proceeds with grim determination, and it may be assumed that future invasion of the United States is not its primary or immediate purpose.

Another is that the Chinese government has finger-wagged at Taiwan so often and so publicly to accept subsidiary status as a mainland province, like Hong Kong and Macao, that … where’s the room to back down? One can only hope that President Hu Jintao will prove less abrasive on the issue than allegedly abrasive outgoing predecessor Jiang Zemin – but that’s only a hope.

And, sure, perhaps the passage of time will cool China's ardor for heavy-handedness and awaken it to the value of persuasion and moderation, as was the marvelous lesson of the recent legislative election in Hong Kong.

Happily, the surprising results, which increased pro-Beijing seats without eviscerating the pro-democratic party, led to the withdrawal of foolishly tougher security laws from further consideration by the ever-embattled but ever-under-appreciated Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's nice-guy top leader.

A third concern is the role of the United States.

China will not strike Taiwan, it may be assumed (unless Beijing is nuts), unless it has some assurance, secret or otherwise, that the United States will look the other way. And, for its part, Taiwan will presumably cease acting as David to Goliath if it all it has in reserve is a silly slingshot and not the security guarantee of the world's sole superpower.

If not, in Vegas, that's called betting the house -- or, in this case, wagering the whole future of the island on the gamble that America's historic anti-communism will override the growing probability that China is destined to become the second superpower with which the U.S., like everyone else, will have to make an accommodation.

Look at it this way: If Chen Shui-bian were suddenly to be in the shoes of George W. Bush – or John Kerry -- what would he do in the event that China invaded Taiwan, whatever the motive?

You know what? He just might duck. Chicken, you see, is such a dangerous
game:  Sometimes the edgiest of the edgy go right off the cliff.

 
 

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