Former Secretary of State Colin Powell met with DPP presidential candidate Frank Hsieh, currently on a trip to the US. Hsieh described the meeting:

Hsieh, who is on a“love and trust”in the US, related Powell said he understood China has been waging psychological warfare against Taiwan for the past 50 years but his country will hold onto the“one China”policy despite its flaws.

Powell painted the policy as the most effective means to avoid regional tensions, according to Hsieh, adding the former US official encouraged Taiwan to be more confident in itself without altering the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

Hsieh replied there is apparently a gap between the two sides on the definition of the status quo. The DPP presidential nominee and President Chen Shui-bian have argued that the plan to call a referendum on whether Taiwan should seek United Nations membership under the name of Taiwan will not upset the island’s status quo with China.

But US State Department has voiced objection to the referendum plan, warning it will heighten cross-strait tensions while having no practical impact on the island’s UN status.

Powell, who said Taiwan is not a sovereign country before leaving the State Department in 2004, then expressed the hope Taiwan can continue to strengthen its democracy and enjoy more freedom, according to Hsieh.

Powells’ remarks point up the gathering flaws of the US One China position:

  • it is increasingly defining violations of the status quo as “anything that angers China.”
  • it lauds Taiwan’s democracy while simultaneously denying the Taiwanese any say in the configuration of “One China.”
  • it places the burden of enforcing the status quo on the US, meaning that while China obtains the benefits of an enforcement that favors China, it pays none of the costs, in terms of lost prestige or economic growth. Instead, these costs are transferred to the US-Taiwan relationship.
  • I essayed on this issue for CSIS in response to David Brown’s piece on Hsieh — which the recent trip has comprehensively refuted — thusly:

    What does it mean to say Beijing “is provoked”? Well, recently, Russia was “provoked” by the US and tore up a treaty. The UK was “provoked” by Russia and expelled four diplomats. Kennedy was “provoked” by missiles in Cuba and a quarantine was duly implemented. Generally, when nations are “provoked,” costly, concrete action follows. By contrast, when Beijing is “provoked,” nothing happens. Taiwanese businessmen and tourists flow into the mainland unmolested. The military does not go on alert, diplomats are not expelled, shots are not fired, the stars continue in their courses and the earth still swings around the sun in 365 days. In short, “being provoked” is something that does not take place in the real world, where concrete action signals the sharp edge of ire. It takes place only in the media.

    What “provokes” Beijing? The quick answer would be to say “moves toward independence” but that is not quite correct. Numerous constitutional and political changes have taken place in Taiwan over the last two decades, all of which have tended to make the island independently self-governed, but Beijing responds only to those that involve certain actors — in fact, since 2000, only to those that involve President Chen and people from the DPP. For example, as Brown notes, the KMT is also proposing a referendum in the upcoming election, but Beijing complained in public only about Chen’s UN referendum, and sent a private warning to the KMT. Since 2000 the National Assembly has been shut down, the legislature streamlined, and various other moves taken, all without a peep from Beijing. “Being provoked” is thus not a visceral reaction. It is a policy choice.

    Why has Beijing adopted this policy? The answer is obvious: to discredit Chen Shui-bian and paint him as “radical” who is dangerous for cross-strait relations, and to acquire leverage over the discourse and deployment of US foreign policy. As a result of this very successful policy move on Beijing’s part, in the discourse of cross-strait relations a “moderate” has become someone who does not advocate democracy and independence for Taiwan, at least in a way that angers Beijing — which, come to think of it, is just about any advocacy of those important principles at all — whereas a “hardliner” is someone who advocates democracy for Taiwan (note how, in this construction, Beijing’s own military build up and hardline policy have completely disappeared). In essence, this cloud-cuckoo-land discourse, and the way that the US State Department and many observers and commentators have bought into the rhetoric of Beijing “being provoked,” gives Beijing enormous leverage over US China policy.

    In sum, why is Beijing “provoked”? Because being provoked in the media gets Beijing results, without it having to take costly, concrete actions that might have catastrophic effects on its economy or relations with other nations. For Beijing, “being provoked” is win-win situation — it wins because Chen and his pro-democracy allies are often portrayed as “radical” — and it wins because other nations leap to do its bidding, at no cost to itself. No wonder it gets provoked so often.

    Given this understanding of both China and Hsieh, it is easy to predict what the future will be. Hsieh will enter office full of conciliatory rhetoric. China will respond, probably positively at first, but then with expressions of “puzzlement” and “anger” over the “stubbornness” of Taipei. Within a year or two, however, a spate of articles will appear in the foreign media, expressing disappointment in how un-moderate Hsieh has turned out to be in office. Perhaps “sympathetic” commentators will blame the awful bogeyman Chen Shui-bian and his cabal of “fundamentalists” who continue to circumscribe poor Hsieh’s range of action. Then another year or two will pass, and like Chen before him, Hsieh will morph into Mad Frank, the Crazed Independence Radical: Watch out! He can declare independence at any moment! Meanwhile Beijing will continue to take a hard line on Taiwan, increasing the hundreds of missiles it points at the island, building up its military, suppressing Taiwan’s international presence, and coordinating policy with the KMT and its allies to fight a rearguard action against the advance of democratic politics in Taiwan (in that context, one reason Beijing wants the UN referendum suppressed is because it is helping out the KMT). It goes without saying that none of these actions will be presented as violations of the “status quo” by observers in the US — that only occurs when those mad “fundamentalist hardliners” in Taiwan do something really serious, like change the name of the gas stations, abolish a useless government organ with an annual budget of thirty bucks, or put forward a referendum on entering the UN that has no chance of success. It goes without saying that none of these events had, or will have, tangible consequences.

    The State Department’s position does have one saving grace — since State is helping it suppress Taiwan, China may well feel it does not have to take military action.

    Brown’s article claimed that

    Third, will Hsieh continue to avoid Chen’s hardline rhetoric that has convinced Beijing that the president is not someone they can deal with? The party organization believes that such rhetoric is key to mobilizing the base. One focus of their efforts is a referendum on joining the U.N. under the name Taiwan. Hsieh supports joining as Taiwan, but has not yet specifically endorsed the referendum. More moderate elements believe that a coincident referendum on Nationalist Party assets will be sufficient for mobilization. As a close campaign proceeds, Hsieh will be pressured and tempted to use hardline rhetoric. Whether he does so will be another key test.

    Brown discussed the “rift” between the “moderate” Hsieh and the “hardline” Chen. Brown claims that Hsieh has not specifically endorsed the referendum. Yet more than a month ago in Kaohsiung, Hsieh did just that, as I reported at Taiwan Matters!, the politics blog (Taiwan News, requires registration):

    Ruling Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Frank Hsieh Friday threw his support behind the government effort to join the United Nations under the name of “Taiwan,” saying it falls in line with his longstanding stance on the issue.

    Hsieh made the remark while in Kaohsiung to cheer up the southen port city’s mayor Chen Chu, whose electoral victory last December was annulled by a district court.

    Though a moderate on cross-strait ties, Hsieh said he has consistently suggested the island apply for UN membership under the name of Taiwan. To that end, Hsieh said he led a delegation to the UN headquarters 15 years ago to promote the cause and engaged in a ferocious debate with opposition Kuomintang lawmaker John Chiang in the Legislature.

    Kathrin Hille of the Financial Times also tried to claim that Hsieh and the DPP “hardliners” were split, and they were trying to control him.

    Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s president, has launched a fresh bid for the island to join the United Nations under its own name just as Frank Hsieh, who is campaigning to succeed him, starts a visit to the US aimed at rebuilding ties that have suffered from previous controversial moves.

    Just 15 minutes after Mr Hsieh boarded a US-bound flight, Mr Chen announced that a letter in which he requested membership for the island under the name “Taiwan” had been delivered to the office of Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, on July 19. Mr Chen’s request for UN membership had not been expected until September.

    The letter is likely to force Mr Hsieh to explain, and perhaps defend, Mr Chen’s latest step in Washington at a time when he is seeking to reassure the US that he would be a reliable partner with consistent policies.

    “Mutual trust [between Taiwan and the US] has been badly damaged under Chen Shui-bian,” said one of Mr Hsieh’s aides.

    Ah, the old unnamed source! That’s always reliable! Relations have soured because the State Department is slowly strangling them, as former AIT head Therese Shaheen noted last month in an essay for AEI, not just because Chen often fails to notify the US before he makes his moves.

    Meanwhile Hsieh put paid to the baseless pro-KMT speculation of Hille, Brown, and others by coming out strongly in favor of the referendum. He is in fact an advocate of better communication with the US. The AP reported on his visit, naming him the frontrunner:

    But Frank Hsieh said that as a member of President Chen Shui-bian’s Democratic Progressive Party, he also backed Chen’s controversial call for a referendum on whether the self-ruled island should join the United Nations under the name Taiwan.

    The referendum idea has angered China but also drawn criticism from the United States, which is pledged to defend the island and is loath to see Taipei upset the status quo.

    Hsieh, front-runner in polls for Taiwan’s March 2008 presidential contest, vowed to boost understanding between Taipei and Washington. Those historic ties have come under strain during the tenure of the independence-minded Chen.

    Hsieh has also adopted Chen’s position that Taiwan, as the Republic of China, is already an independent state, and thus, there is no need to call for independence. In other words, by any rational definition of the word, Chen and Hsieh are both moderates. The problem is that, in the establishment academic discourse on Taiwan, the word moderate has essentially become someone who will never ever ever offend Beijing.

    Hsieh is obviously a thoughtful and perspicacious observer, for he put his finger on the problem (AP, above):

    “Taiwanese need to understand that the U.S. needs to engage with China to manage a wide range of issues, from trade to the environment to nuclear security in North Korea,” Hsieh said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

    “The U.S., on the other hand, needs to understand the changing dynamics of Taiwan society,” he said.

    Exactly. This problem isn’t going to go away. Seventy percent of the electorate support UN entry under the name Taiwan — a large section of Blue voters are in fact supportive of independence at the national level. The mainstream voter in Taiwan is by and large pro-independence. The fundamental problem with the US position on Taiwan is that it never asked the Taiwanese what they thought about the future of their island. Instead, it disposed of them in the best realpolitik real-men-decide-the-fate-of-nations manner. The result is a foreign policy that does not, and cannot, take into account current realities. And a policy that does not take into account reality is doomed, one way or another, to failure.

    The US needs to re-establish the position it has always held: that the status of Taiwan is undecided. To move the Taiwan Desk out from under the China Desk at the State Department. To permit contacts at the highest level. To sell Taiwan the fighter aircraft and other weapons it needs, and to vigorously support Taiwan’s entry into the WHO and other bodies where non-state entities can join. To stop transferring the costs of enforcing the status quo to the US-Taiwan relationship.

    And pain beyond irony: while the US keeps Taiwan in its ambiguous non-state existence, at the same time it is committed to full support of independence for Kosovo come November, despite Russian anger. And those of you who imagine that Taiwan’s independence must be a bloodbath, take heart from the story of Estonia, in which many of the same themes and tactics appear.

    There is a path for Taiwan too, if only we can find it.