WORLD -- May 13, 2011 at 11:58 AM ET
Taiwan, China and the United States:
a Complicated Triangle
Taipei 101 towers over Taiwan's skyline. Photo by Flickr user tylerdurden1
"Rashomon" may be Japanese -- not Chinese -- theater, but the relationships between mainland China, Taiwan and United States often seem to resemble the film's portrayal of various versions of the truth.
All three parties say they follow a "One China" policy, but the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China are two very different places. The latter is an increasingly vibrant democracy, while the mainland squashes any opposition to the one-party rule of the Communist Party. The United States and Taiwan no longer have formal diplomatic relations, but each maintain large quasi-diplomatic missions in each other's capitals, under other names.
Another example of that form of stagecraft was on display in Washington this week. By policy, if not by law, the President of the Republic of China is not supposed to visit the United States. Instead, President Ma Ying-jeou participated in a teleconference that drew an early morning crowd of nearly 200 to a basement room at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. The president, with law degrees from New York University and Harvard, and whose first job was a simultaneous translator, spoke in flawless English.
President Ma, who won a landslide election in 2008, has been popular with both the Obama and Bush administrations for his policy of engaging the mainland rather than seeming to promote an independent Taiwan in the manner of his predecessor. Anything that reduces tensions across the Taiwan Straits is widely welcomed in Washington, which is committed to defending Taiwan and its 22 million people should China, without provocation, decide to absorb it by force.
As recently as 1995, President Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to the area after China made some belligerent gestures. One difference now is China's vastly improved military, which poses new dangers for the U.S. Navy. And China continues to respond angrily every time Washington announces new arms sales to Taiwan.
But it was engagement, not confrontation, that President Ma extolled in his Washington teleconference, noting 15 different accords between Taipei and Bejing, vastly expanding trade and investment and bringing three million mainland visitors to the island.
"I worked hard to accelerate change," the president said, asserting his policies rest on three principles: no unification, no independence and no use of force.
But typical of the ambiguity of the relationship, Ma said both Chinas agree there is one China, but have their respective definitions of what that means.
Despite his accelerated engagement policies, Ma acknowledged that Taiwan political opinion is split among three camps: those who want unification with the mainland, those happy with current arrangements and those seeking an independent Taiwan.
He dodged questions on how these differences will play out in the January election. Polls show a dead even race between his party and the main opposition.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from an earlier version, which named March as the election month.