Reality check for Taiwan independence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 September, 2004, 12:00am

Amid simmering tension between the mainland and Taiwan, two trends worry an increasing number of Asia-Pacific governments. One is the growth of independence sentiment in Taiwan, which Beijing insists is part of China. The other is the belief of many Taiwanese that Beijing would not use force to prevent independence, and the expectation of Taiwanese leaders that even if it did, the US would intervene militarily to protect democracy on the island.

Taiwan's economy is becoming increasingly integrated with, and dependent on, the mainland. But politically, they are moving apart. Recent visitors from Southeast Asia to Taiwan, including Lee Hsien Loong, now Singapore's prime minister, have noted that there is a stronger Taiwanese identity emerging. More people are using the Taiwanese dialect and many think of themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese.

The governing Democratic Progressive Party of President Chen Shui-bian plays on this aspiration for sovereignty and statehood. Its leaders portray themselves as crusaders for national dignity and insist that Taiwan, after 55 years of separate rule, is already independent of Beijing.

Reacting to this political groundswell, younger-generation lawmakers in Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang said this week that they had founded a new party faction and wanted the KMT to adopt a more pro-independence stance to prevent the party being marginalised.

Singapore has become the latest regional state to try to convince the Taiwanese of the realities of their international position. On August 22, in his first National Day speech, Mr Lee said bluntly that a move by Taiwan towards independence was neither in Singapore's nor the region's interests because it would shatter hopes for China's peaceful emergence and for the region to prosper through trade, investment and tourism.

'If Taiwan goes for independence, Singapore will not recognise it,' Mr Lee said. 'In fact, no Asian country will recognise it. Nor will European countries. China will fight. Win or lose, Taiwan will be devastated. Unfortunately, I met only very few Taiwanese leaders who understood this.'

As their trade, investment, security and other ties with China intensify, many Asia-Pacific nations are recalibrating their relations with Beijing and making it clear to Taiwan that its interests must be subordinate.

China delayed talks on a free-trade agreement after Mr Lee, then deputy prime minister of Singapore, took official leave of absence and made what he said was a private visit to Taiwan in July. Not long afterwards, Malaysia said all its ministers had been told not to visit Taiwan because it could offend Beijing. Australia, one of America's closest Asia-Pacific allies along with Japan, warned Taiwan last month that it could not count on support if it provoked Beijing. China recently surpassed the US to become Australia's second-biggest export market after Japan.

The US itself is preoccupied with Iraq and counter-terrorism, and is locked into increasing interdependence with China. America, too, clearly wants to prevent miscalculation by Taiwanese nationalists. President George W. Bush began his tenure by warning China that the US would do 'whatever it took' to defend Taiwan from any Chinese aggression. But by last December, he had shifted position, saying that America opposed attempts by Taiwan to change the status quo.

The cumulative pressure may now be starting to register in Taipei. This week, Taiwan cancelled a military exercise planned for September 9, in what it said was a show of goodwill towards Beijing.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Studies in Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author