Tuesday, February 01, 2005

New Beijing tactics? (Editorial)

The Straits Times, Feb 2, 2005

CHINA's latest nuanced show of conciliation towards Taiwan, an offer made last week to open talks with any leader 'regardless of his past rhetoric and actions', plainly would have President Chen Shui-bian among the target audience. It is just as plain Mr Chen will not budge, as the condition of an absolutist one-China acknowledgment is anathema. The Chinese leadership knows this. But what if Mr Chen were no longer its prime interest? What if China were obliquely addressing itself to the broad spectrum of Taiwanese opinion that straddles those who favour the no-change status quo and those who prefer independence? In short, that it is calculating it could do better by taking its case directly to the Taiwanese people, on the premise the islanders have been kept out of the loop by their own leaders? By extension, it can be argued China is doing an Arafat - freezing out Mr Chen until his second term runs out, just as US President George W Bush would not deal with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for being what the President called an obstruction to peace. Time is on China's side - this is cliched but demonstrably true.

The probability has to be considered. China's tactical play has changed perceptibly under President Hu Jintao. Since he assumed full control by taking over the military headship once held by his predecessor, Mr Jiang Zemin, he appears to be moving towards making the unification time-frame flexible. Moreover, the offer of dialogue came from Mr Jia Qinglin, the fourth-ranked member of the party Politburo's standing committee. The clearance level is suitably high for the message to filter through. What is significant is that Beijing says it is prepared to deal with any quarter - including officials of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as well as the Kuomintang-dominated opposition. They need only acknowledge Beijing's supremacy over Taiwan. By offering the option of contact to DPP quarters that are ambivalent about independence, China would be driving a wedge through Mr Chen's constituency. Offering the KMT equal privilege is more of the same. It is no different from Mr Chen keeping up his 'reconciliation' offer to the opposition People's First Party leader James Soong, in hopes of weakening Taiwan's pro-China alliance. Beijing's switch of tack has risks, but it does force Mr Chen on the defensive.

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