Little Taiwan Begins to Roar, Irritating Its Big Neighbor
This spunky island seeks more worldwide recognition. But China considers it no more than an upstart province.
TAIWAN is playing the uneasy and potentially dangerous role of pushy upstart to an ascendant China.Skip to next paragraph
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In less than a decade, this island economic powerhouse has moved from military dictatorship and diplomatic pariah-state to a fractious democracy and informal partner of governments officially linked to its rival, Communist China.
A cold-war ally of the US, Taiwan is demanding more overt support from its long-time patron and is challenging China's claim to what Beijing considers a renegade province. As China asserts itself in the region and bids for stature as a world power, Taiwan looms as a crucial test of Chinese ambitions and superpower rivalry in Asia, Western and Asian analysts say.
Taiwan ''is seen as an important litmus test of China policy in general.... Will [China] be a responsible power or an irresponsible power?'' asks Harry Harding, a China specialist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. ''It is a very important factor in US-China relations and, if the situation were to deteriorate, it could become a major factor with other countries, too, particularly Japan.''
Few of Asia's many territorial disputes are so emotionally charged and carry such high stakes as the contest across the Taiwan Strait. Ever since victorious mainland Communists chased Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces to the small island in 1949, both governments have claimed to be heirs to a future reunited China. Officially still at war with the island, Beijing threatens to use force should Taiwan ever declare independence.
But Asia's waning cold war, Western rapprochement with Beijing, and economic transformation on the mainland have softened past rigidities. Taiwan is intertwined economically with the mainland and, through quasi-official organizations, talks directly to Beijing about fishing rights, transportation links, and other issues in what could be a prelude to future political negotiations.
Washington's balancing act
Official recognition of Beijing in 1979 and continuing military and informal diplomatic ties to Taipei have thrust Washington into a delicate balancing act across the Taiwan Strait. In Taiwan, the US is still widely considered the main military buffer against a coercive mainland, followed by Japan, which enjoys close ties to Taipei and could easily become a player in a USChina standoff.
Once China reabsorbs British-controlled Hong Kong in 1997, Taiwanese expect their island to move to the top of Beijing's agenda. But a reduced American military presence in Asia, isolationist sentiment in the United States, and Washington's accommodation of powerful Beijing have left many here wondering where Washington will side in a standoff.
''The Americans are not so foolish as to put themselves in the position to be arbiter,'' says a Western diplomat in Taipei. But ''they're not about to pack up their tents and go home after all these years.''
''The US doesn't want to have to choose between Taipei and Beijing,'' says Diane Ying, editor of the respected Commonwealth monthly in Taipei. ''The US doesn't want to have to send soldiers anywhere. I don't think the US has that kind of stomach anymore.''
To the worry of some US officials, Taipei's tampering with the cross-strait status quo is compelled by democratic changes initiated by the US. Since Chiang Ching-Kuo, son of modern Taiwan's founding father, Kai-shek, lifted martial law in 1987 and launched the passage from dictatorship to democracy, government opponents have often pushed to declare independence, and the empowered middle class has demanded international recognition of the island's economic clout and emerging national identity.
Still clinging to its dream of reunification with the mainland, the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, nevertheless has been forced to acknowledge public sentiment and has taken steps toward political autonomy. Cash-rich Taipei is waging a highly symbolic campaign to win a seat in the United Nations and a more serious effort to enroll its powerful economy in the new World Trade Organization before China does.