China's Other Crisis

New York Sun Editorial

While Asia-watchers are focused on the crisis at Tibet, a drama is quietly unfolding on Communist China's opposite flank, the free Chinese republic on Taiwan, which is preparing for a presidential election scheduled for Saturday. In 1996's election, China responded with days of missile "tests" in advance of the plebiscite. The "tests" consisted of lobbing missiles in the direction of the people who were about to vote. President Clinton responded by sending two carrier battle groups toward the Taiwan Strait.

Were China to lash out at Taiwan on the eve of the election at the same time that it is murdering Tibetans in Lhasa, it would test the patience of the international community — and, particularly, the American public — to the breaking point. The election in Taiwan pits Ma Ying-jeou of the Koumintang Party and Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party. The KMT's position is that once China is open and democratic, then unification of Taiwan and the mainland might be discussed. The DPP favors permanent independence.

The election also features ballot questions on whether Taiwan should seek membership in the United Nations under the name Taiwan or under some other name, such as Chinese Taipei, the name under which Taiwan participates in the Olympics. Secretary of State Rice has called that referendum "provocative" and said it "unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait, and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage."

So much for the Bush administration's backing of democracy and respecting its friends, though Ms. Rice's deputy, John Negroponte, who heads the administration's "senior dialogue" with the communist regime, backed off that position somewhat in a recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, saying that America has told the Chinese communists "that they shouldn't try to deprive Taiwan of all of its political space. For example, there are institutions, global institutions, that don't require being a state to have membership. We think Beijing can afford to be a little bit more generous toward Taiwan in regard to some of those organizations."

A Zogby poll earlier this month of 1,072 Taiwanese adults found 85% support the Taiwanese government petitioning for membership in the United Nations. If the Bush doctrine is to support the spread of freedom and democracy, discouraging a democratic referendum seems a contradiction. If Communist China does decide the election is a moment for missile tests, it will be a sign that what disturbs it about Taiwan is not the idea of a renegade province declaring independence, but the democracy itself — the idea that the people of Taiwan are having a voice in their own government, a voice that is denied to the Chinese imprisoned on the mainland.

Copyright © 2008 New York Sun

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