The Taiwan Tinderbox

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DAVID SHAMBAUGHChina's official People's Daily is often prone to hyperbole, but it was not overstating the severity of the situation when it asserted last week that Lee Teng-hui was playing with fire. With a few provocative words, Taiwan's President reminded Asia and the world of the volatility in cross-Strait relations. The political and economic consequences of his remarks are serious enough, but the real danger lies in the potential for war--a conflict that would likely embroil the United States and Japan directly, and other East Asian countries indirectly.
Lee's statement that contacts between Taiwan and China should be at a state-to-state or nation-to-nation (guojia-yu-guojia) level is a distinct departure from Taipei's previous position that China was one country, a divided nation, with two political entities. The One China principle is universally accepted. By abandoning that principle, Taiwan officials invite military pressure from Beijing, alienate Washington and compromise Taipei's efforts to carve out a greater international living space.

The hard truth is that the path to international recognition, peace and stability for Taiwan's 22 million citizens and their democratically elected government lies only in a One China framework. However admirable the right of self-determination, the fact is that the U.S. will not defend or support Taiwan militarily if it proclaims independence, nor would other nations likely recognize a sovereign Taiwan state.

Taipei's only realistic long-term hope is to establish maximum autonomy within a Chinese commonwealth or confederation. Under such conditions, Taiwan may be able to negotiate representation in a wide range of international organizations under the Olympic Games precedent, whereby Chinese Taipei participates. Beijing must be willing to permit Taiwan such latitude in the international arena, but the quid pro quo would be Taiwan's acceptance of the One China principle.

This requires an elastic concept of One China and a redefinition of the republican basis of China. Such elasticity has been evident in the thinking of Wang Daohan, China's elder statesman ostensibly in charge of relations with Taiwan. Privately, Wang and his advisers have offered flexible views of Taiwan's role in One China, even showing a willingness to negotiate new symbols of nationhood, like a flag or constitution, for a new China. Taipei would be well advised to explore Wang's ideas and engage in dialogue on the definition of One China. Unfortunately, Taipei so far has shown no interest in such political talks. Instead, it has now moved in the opposite direction, risking a serious deterioration of the situation.

Taipei has a clear choice: if it wishes to maintain peace, stability and prosperity for its citizens, to continue its rule over the island, and to expand its international status, it must do so within a One China framework. If Taipei abandons that, it risks war with unpredictable and costly consequences. For this framework to work and have longevity, it also requires flexibility on Beijing's part--particularly movement toward a confederation and democracy, which are Taiwan's key demands.

Although both treat cross-Strait relations as a zero-sum game, the One China framework offers unlimited positive-sum opportunities for both sides. It permits both to transcend the divisive legacy of the civil war, allows Taiwan to overcome its national identity crisis and Beijing to maintain the unity of the Chinese nation, while permitting both to build a new Chinese state.

David Shambaugh is director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution