First, China responds with invective and bombast to Taiwan’s latest defeat, this time in a committee. On the Taiwan issue, I say “Let China Speak!” Nothing makes them look worse than their own nasty Czechslovakia-must-be-blotted-out! rhetoric. AP via The International Herald Tribune tells the tale:

On Wednesday, the U.N. General Assembly’s General Committee decided not to include a vote on admitting Taiwan into the world body on this year’s General Assembly agenda.

Though the attempt was Taiwan’s 15th failure to join the U.N. in as many years, the latest efforts have particularly agitated Beijing. The U.N. vote — and a public referendum on the issue scheduled for next year on Taiwan — are seen by Beijing as an attempt by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian to undermine China’s claims to sovereignty, and give a legal basis to the independence Taiwan has enjoyed in practice since the two sides split in a civil war 58 years ago.

Shortly after Wednesday’s vote, China’s U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, described Taiwan’s U.N. entry bid as a plot to promote independence, and said Chen was using the issue to inflame tensions with Beijing as a way to improve his political standing in Taiwan.

“Instead of offering blessings to the Taiwan compatriots, these activities can only cause disastrous consequences,” Xinhua, in a separate report, quoted Wang as saying. “We hope and believe that the Taiwan compatriots can clearly see Chen’s ulterior motives.”

The U.N. issue has emotional resonance among Taiwan’s public. Taiwan, whose formal name is the Republic of China, was tossed out of the U.N. in 1971 as part of a deal to give the China seat to Beijing. At the time, both Taiwan and Beijing claimed to be China’s sole legitimate government.

In recent years, Taiwan has dropped the claim and sought to emerge on the international stage as a separate country — a claim that Beijing rejects. The result has been an all-out campaign by Beijing to keep other countries from recognizing Taiwan and to pressure the island’s few remaining diplomatic allies into withdrawing support.

Actually, not too bad a rendering of all that complicated history, and kudos to AP for taking a crack at illustrating the issues (unlike the recent TIME article). Still stuck in that “China and Taiwan split in 1949″ — thought Taiwan was part of Japan at the time, and it was the Communists and the Nationalists who split. Note that the article stops short of pointing out that a majority of people in Taiwan support the island’s entry into the UN. Instead, it simply says the issue has “emotional resonance.”

The latest Nelson Report, the Washington Insider Report, contains some useful information on the US side of things.

TAIWAN…the battle on Taiwan to gain UN membership had a brief flurry today…at the UN…as an attempt was made to get the topic onto the agenda for debate at this years General Assembly.

For the 15th consecutive year, China used its influence to block Taiwan’s request at the Agenda Committee level. The wrinkle this year, as we have been reporting, is President Chen’s campaign to join the UN under the official name of “Taiwan”.

There may be another push, as early as this Friday, to get the issue before the UNGA for a vote…something the Administration very much wants to avoid, for many reasons.

As background, remember the role of accepted catechism in the Cross-Strait dialogue/standoff…Taiwan used to be “The Republic of China” and that is the country which was officially “derecognized” by the US in 1980, and replaced by The People’s Republic of China.

(Remember also the howls of laughter…except in Beijing…when the White House public address announced proudly welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao as the leader of “The Republic of China”?)

No laughing matter is that the UN membership fight has become the latest Chen/DPP effort to “push the envelope” in ways which President Bush himself has warned “threaten the peaceful status quo”.

Maintaining that peaceful status-quo has been the sine qua non of US policy since 1972, and was codified into US law by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, mandating continued arms sales for that purpose.

The Bush Administration has been increasingly “public” in its opposition to Chen’s various moves on official international space, especially but not just limited to trying to stop next March’s planned public referendum on joining the UN as “Taiwan”.

But today the US was able to stay in the background, while China did the heavy lifting. What continues to concern the Administration, as noted above, is that President Chen seems determined to have a General Assembly debate sponsored by UN members who continue to officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign, independent country.

In such an event, the Administration…and remember, Taiwan policy starts with President Bush…the US might feel it had no option but to change its ambiguous public stance on Taiwan independence from “we do not support, but we also do not oppose” to a flat…”we oppose”.

Among many concerns, US also worries that if Chen pushes the UN issue he runs the risk of seeing many, if not the remainder of Taiwan’s official international recognitions go down the drain…

For now, sources say the Bush folks are asking Beijing “don’t over-react” to Chen and his actions, especially the current push at the UN itself.

Whether restraint from China is either likely, or politically possible, given the leadership situation in Beijing in the run-up to the Party Congress, et al, is increasingly a concern, informed sources admit.

Depending on whom you talk to, high-level Chinese sources have, on the one hand, told the Bush folks they are happy, so far, with how the US is working to keep the Taiwan situation under control.

On the other hand, Loyal Readers who also enjoy high-level Chinese sources report exactly the opposite - that in fact, the Leadership is increasingly worried, and dissatisfied, and has been warning the Bush folks that if they don’t do better, Beijing is going to have to step in with…

And, as always, that’s the concern. With what? Ten years ago it was missiles into the waters just off the island…

At a minimum, it could lead to a serious disruption in US-China relations, which is precisely the main reason President Bush has been running Taiwan policy himself,since 2002.

I’ve highlighted the last three paragraphs because they are critical. And read that last sentence: the Decider has dismissed his staff and has personally taken over the defense of Stalingrad. Since 2002……

Frank Ching, the Hong Kong-based commentator whose name most of you will recognize, had a commentary in the South China Morning Post, which at the moment is behind their annoying pay-to-view wall (so no link), but should be out elsewhere soon….

Taipei’s Risky Game
Frank Ching

The United States has taken the unusual action of publicly acknowledging its differences with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian. In effect, it’s admitting that it has failed to influence Mr Chen through quiet diplomacy, and now hopes that forces within Taiwan will be able to change the president’s mind about holding a referendum on applying to join the UN under the name “Taiwan”.

The message came in blunt language last week from Thomas Christensen, US deputy assistant secretary of state. He said the actions of Taiwan’s leaders “will be a major factor in determining whether the interests of their people are protected; whether Taiwan will continue to flourish in an environment of peace and security; or whether all that Taiwan has achieved might be put at risk by cross-strait tensions or, worse still, conflict”.

He was addressing the US-Taiwan Business Council, and his remarks had great weight because he made it clear that they “represent the agreed views of the United States government”.

President Chen plans to hold the referendum on March 22, to coincide with the island’s presidential election.

“The United States is not opposed to referenda,” Mr Christensen said in explaining the American position. “What worries us, very specifically, is the issue of name change. This draft referendum raises the question of what Taiwan should be called in the international community. Moreover, it does so in what could be interpreted by many to be a legally binding popular vote.”

However, if Washington was hoping that such public pressure would have an effect on the Chen administration, it was due for a disappointment. Two days later, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal Asia, Mr Chen showed determination to press on despite American objections. He voiced confidence that there would be no violent reaction from Beijing.

He talked about the past four years, when he persisted in provocative actions despite American opposition. He recalled that he had successfully pushed for a referendum law in 2003 and held Taiwan’s first referendum in 2004. Then, last year, he scrapped the National Unification Council and the Guidelines for National Unification.

“Time has proven that the US’ concerns about different viewpoints regarding opposition to, and criticism of, our actions were all unwarranted,” Mr Chen said. “Nothing happened.”

Similarly, this time “the US government has also expressed opposition and grave concern”. But, he went on: “I’d like to assure the US government that nothing is going to happen after March 22 next year.”

For four years, Mr Chen has resisted attempts by Washington to temper his often irresponsible actions. However, Washington has little to show for its efforts. Now it has little choice but to wait for a new leadership to emerge in the presidential election next March.

Mr Chen is focused only on the domestic political gains from holding a referendum and is willing to risk the security of the island’s 23 million people. He seems to think that, because Beijing has exercised restraint in the past, he can continue to be increasingly provocative.

That is brinkmanship pure and simple. To keep pushing to the verge of disaster is not the action of a responsible leader.

The US is taking the much more responsible position. It does not want to risk the security of Taiwan or to be drawn needlessly into a war with the mainland. It cannot afford to adopt Mr Chen’s reckless attitude and let him continue to take provocative action until “something happens”.

Hopefully, this public American stance will be a factor in the domestic politics of Taiwan. It is likely to influence the course of the ongoing presidential campaign. By appealing to the Taiwanese people, Washington is in effect asking the electorate to choose as their next leader a moderate who will work to make Taiwan strong but, at the same time, be willing to exercise restraint.

It will be interesting to see if the two presidential candidates, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang and Frank Hsieh Chang-ting of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, take Washington’s exhortations to heart. Taiwanese voters will make their decision in March. It will be a fateful one.

Christensen, as I’ve pointed out, thinks (wrongly) that voters in Taiwan actually listen to the US. Ching here acts as a mediator introducing the US position to readers, and positions himself firmly as a junior member of the Establishment, adopting the US view on terms like “moderate.” Chen, he explains, is irresponsible:

For four years, Mr Chen has resisted attempts by Washington to temper his often irresponsible actions

That is brinkmanship pure and simple. To keep pushing to the verge of disaster is not the action of a responsible leader.

These “irresponsible actions” include renaming the gas stations, and abolishing a symbolic body with a budget of US$30. (The image of the Bush Administration, with its insane invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the upcoming gotterdammerung in Iran, “tempering” someone else also has a delicious ironic humor to it). Meanwhile Chen is also reckless:

It cannot afford to adopt Mr Chen’s reckless attitude and let him continue to take provocative action until “something happens”.

By contrasted, Beijing is restrained:

He seems to think that, because Beijing has exercised restraint in the past, he can continue to be increasingly provocative.

The thing about such language is that it is so easy to parody, but in abusing it one misses Ching’s horrid ethical position, which is that it would have been OK for Beijing to invade Taiwan, plunge the region into war, disrupt the world economy, and murder hundreds of thousands of people because Chen did something “irresponsible” like changing the name of the gas company, but Beijing was, you know, statesmen-like and all, “restraining itself.” One is forced to ponder why, if Beijing’s positions are so wonderful, it needs to be restrained in the first place. It is a cliche to reach for Orwell, but when I read pieces like this, I can’t help but recall his brilliant essay, Politics and the English Language:

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Observe also that Ching ends with the dramatic:

Taiwanese voters will make their decision in March. It will be a fateful one.

Yes, it will be a fateful one (it’s a Presidential election. Doh). But in the sense that Ching means, there won’t be any great changes in Taiwan’s behavior or policies, because they are driven by structural considerations of Taiwan’s domestic political situation. Note that Ching, like Beijing, ascribes this mess to the machinations of the Diabolical Chen Shui-bian (who, if he did not exist, would have to be invented, a sort of Lei Feng in reverse) rather than attempting to understand Chen within the framework of Taiwanese identity and Taiwanese nationalism that he is appealing to.

I’m closing with these comments on a previous post by Thomas, who notes:

One more thing: Ban has also legitimized the use of the name “Taiwan” in applying for UN membership. While he declared the application for membership to be illegal, basing his decision on Resolution 2758, which indicates no such thing, he still has “allowed” discussion of the application under the name of Taiwan, thanks to the efforts of the island’s allies (not that he himself has any choice in the matter, although he has used his position make decrees that were not in his power in the past). This is nothing less than a victory for the greens.

He observed earlier on the same post:

The greens can continue with their referendum push and there is nothing the blues can do to criticize them. This is because Ban has based his argument on the resolution that states that sovereignty of China resides with the government of the PRC. This means that Ma’s decision to push an application under the name of the Republic of China is the most problematic one of all. Even though the resolution does not state that the ROC cannot apply for a NEW seat, it is the basis for Ban’s argument that the island’s application is illegal.

Of course, Ma will have no choice but to push ahead with his own referendum. He cannot back down without losing face. And he cannot criticize the greens without opening himself to criticism over the name he has chosen to use to represent the country.

The end result will be a net positive for Taiwan. The greens can play up their victimization and benefit from the public disappointment with Ban’s comments. The blues can only play along. In the end, there will still be resolutions calling for UN entry, and at least one of them might actually pass (fingers crossed).

I hope that someone in the Hsieh administration has the sense to play this as it should be played.

When the “moderate” Hsieh comes to power, his policies are going to look a lot like the “radical” Chen’s….