Taiwan: Dean's Window of Opportunity

Howard Dean has a great chance to score political points against President George Bush in the aftermath of the capture of Saddam Hussein.

But the opportunity is not what people think.

Bush gained a victory, however flimsy, with Saddam's capture. No manner of spin will diminish the president's gain. Candidate Dean may be correct when he says that Saddam's capture doesn't make America safer. But his capture doesn't make the country any less safe either.

What does threaten American security – and far more than Saddam ever did – is a nearly forgotten dispute far from Baghdad and Tikrit. The dispute is between China and Taiwan, an island 80 miles off the coast of mainland China. Forget India-Pakistan. Forget Palestine-Israel. The potentially most dangerous place on the world map is the Formosa Strait, a narrow channel of water between mainland China and what the Chinese government considers to be a renegade province, Taiwan.

Chinese leaders talk openly about invading Taiwan should the island declare independence. Then the U.S. would be faced with the terrifying choice of launching a nuclear attack on China to save Taiwan from its clutches.

Bush's approach to the problem is to pander to China's authoritarian government, essentially telling Chinese leaders that their fantasy of incorporating Taiwan into China will inevitably come true.

The President's unstated rationale is simple: China's economy is large, and U.S. corporations are investing heavily in the country in anticipation of an enormous payoff. But the economic rationale is double-edged. China is selling $100 billion a year more to the U.S. in goods than the U.S. sells to China. On the back of its ultra-cheap labor, China is flooding the U.S. with everything from shoes to computers, devastating America's own manufacturing base.

By siding so openly with China, Bush exposes his administration's animus towards working people in America and its hypocrisy in international affairs. By doing so, he is giving candidate Dean a huge opportunity to both present a humane foreign policy and defend American workers.

The question, of course, is how best to stimulate progressive reform in China. The position of Taiwan – a nation of less than 30 million people, compared to China's 1.3 billion – is undeniably dicey. China wants to take it over, the sooner the better. And not merely because Taiwan has a robust economy with strong financial links to the mainland. As the late China scholar Gerald Segal argued, China relentlessly seeks to impose a monolithic political and cultural template on every region under its dominion because the forces of disintegration within it are so strong. Based on regional differences within China, Segal predicted in his classic 1995 book, "China Deconstructs," that the vast nation would someday break into a patchwork of perhaps a dozen smaller nation-states.

Such an evolution would likely improve human rights and social conditions for people who already identify strongly with regional languages and cultures. Yet China's leaders fear the country's diversity and at every turn they crush peaceful expressions of difference. The Buddhists of Tibet are decimated. The Muslims of northern China are conveniently labeled terrorists and repressed. Religious dissenters, whether Christians or followers of the indigenous spiritual movement Falun Gong, are silenced.

China sees diversity as a threat to its existence, which is why Taiwan's fate is so important. The Chinese would like Taiwan to submit peacefully to Beijing's rule, but the democratically-elected government of Taiwan wants the option to explore independence. In fact, the two countries have been independent of each other for more than 50 years, but China wants to roll back history. It has scores of nuclear missiles aimed at Taiwan. The missiles can reach their targets in minutes, so the island is essentially defenseless against a Chinese strike.

In a rare act of defiance against China's government, the president of Taiwan has called for a referendum to be held on whether his country should seek formal independence from China. Taiwan's legislature has asked for China to change the targeting of its missiles.

Instead of applauding Taiwan's bravery, President Bush has chastised the country, warning it not to seek independence. "I would have probably said the same thing," Howard Dean said of Bush's warning.

Think again, candidate Dean. By defending of Taiwan – and preaching the virtues of diversity and tolerance to China's leaders – Dean can sharply distinguish himself and take back from the "right wing wackos" the debate over national security. By promoting realistic options for peaceful co-existence between Taiwan and China, Dean can paint Bush as a President who sides with oppressors and sleeps with tyrants. He also can remind voters that, while Iraq dominates the news and indeed has become a quagmire, the real threats to U.S. security lie elsewhere in the world.

In the 1940s, Republicans cried, "Who lost China?" when blaming the Democrats for Mao's ascendance and the communist hegemony in that strategic country. Now Dean and the Democrats must ask, "Who lost Taiwan?" or they will find later that the Republicans have.

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of "The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy" (Westview, 2003).

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