While upheaval in Tibet and a devastating earthquake in Sichuan have dominated the headlines over the past month, the greatest danger to East Asian stability and Sino-American relations is another crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
The people of Taiwan are ambivalent about cross-strait ties, and some demand independence, despite threats from the People's Republic of China. Washington has called for peaceful resolution of the dispute while pressuring Taiwan's leaders to avoid provocations and demanding that China's leaders eschew violence. Beijing, in turn, accuses Americans of interfering in its internal affairs.
However, the recent election of Nationalist Party candidate Ma Ying-jeou as president of Taiwan would seem to offer an opportunity for better cross-strait and Sino-American ties. Mr. Ma promises a less confrontational approach than his predecessor, Democratic Progressive Party leader Chen Shui-bian, had pursued. In his inaugural address Tuesday, Mr. Ma declared that his policy was "no unification, no independence and no use of force," but he also sought to placate Beijing by accepting the principle that Taiwan and the mainland form part of a vaguely defined "China." He wishes to focus on practical problems related to travel, trade and investment.
Further, Mr. Ma has skillfully used Taiwan's humanitarian relief efforts to earthquake victims in mainland China as an example of his pragmatic approach to relations. The new president also used the evacuation of Taiwanese from the disaster zone as a way to push for direct flights between both sides of the strait.
On the eve of the Olympics, Beijing appears eager to emphasize its peaceful intentions and to reach some sort of accommodation without compromising its claim to Taiwan. Further, President Bush has urged Chinese leaders to use this "fresh opportunity" to improve ties.
Despite these positive signs, domestic politics will shape cross-strait ties more than geopolitics. First, those who support the island's permanent legal separation from the mainland will be mobilized by improvements to relations with China. Although polls show that independence advocates are a minority, they are vocal and influential.
Second, Mr. Ma and the Nationalists now control the executive and legislative branches, and are saddled with responsibility for all problems faced by the island's inhabitants. Thus, Mr. Ma may lose political capital necessary to deal with the mainland as a result of domestic disputes unrelated to cross-strait relations. Further, voters have high expectations and may turn against Mr. Ma if his policies do not quickly garner tangible benefits.
Third, the relationship could be hostage to mainland politics. For example, recent Tibetan protests have increased Chinese nationalism and heightened sensitivity to perceived threats to autonomy. In this context, domestic politics may lead Chinese President Hu Jintao to take a hard line on the Taiwan issue.
Finally, Mr. Ma's diplomatic strategy is more complex than simply seeking reconciliation with China. The incoming president is improving ties to the United States, and he wishes to reinvigorate Taiwan's military by major arms purchases. He seeks to strengthen Taiwan's international position in order to improve its negotiating position vis-?-vis China.
Americans should be satisfied if Mr. Ma's initiative reduces tensions, and not expect any fundamental changes in cross-strait relations. Given the alternative - military conflict between the established global superpower and the rising regional power - this less dramatic outcome merits support. The Bush administration and its successor should recognize that better relations with Taiwan, including arms sales, would boost Mr. Ma's stature and show support for his moderate policy toward the mainland. Such an approach would give all parties greater incentive to focus on a peaceful resolution to Taiwan's status and would reduce the chance of a Sino-American crisis in the strait.
Steven Phillips is Martha A. Mitten professor in the College of Liberal Arts at Towson University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.