By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 15, 2006
BEIJING -- Gradually and without fanfare, China has substantially softened its stand on Taiwan, according to senior officials and diplomats. President Hu Jintao, they said, has begun to play down China's long-standing vow to recover the self-ruled island by force if necessary and shifted the focus to preventing any move toward formal independence.
The adjustment, which has become clearer in recent months, has brought China's policy on the volatile Taiwan issue closer to that of the United States. Washington has long maintained that the island's half-century-old status quo -- independent in fact but not in law -- should not be changed until Beijing and Taipei can work out a mutually acceptable peaceful solution.
"Before, we never said 'status quo,' " said a Chinese academic who advises Hu's government on Taiwan. "Now we say it all the time."
Officials and diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. One of them, a high-level official, said he had visited Beijing and spoken to Hu privately about Taiwan for several hours. Hu, according to the visitor, said he had no plans to act militarily against Taiwan unless the status quo was changed in a way that risked causing him to "lose face." That concern reflected the ardor for reunification among many Chinese on the mainland.
Despite continuing propaganda about "liberating" Taiwan, Hu said China's bottom line was that it would not allow the island to take decisive steps toward legal independence, the visitor recalled. Backing up that resolution, China has deployed nearly 800 medium- and short-range ballistic missiles in southern China, with targets around the Taiwan Strait, and is steadily building its military forces with Taiwan as a principal focus.
The government also passed an anti-secession law in March 2005 that legally enshrined the long-standing pledge to use military force as a last resort to prevent independence. But barring changes in the status quo, Hu told the visitor, Beijing's policy is to encourage more economic and other exchanges between Taiwan and the mainland in hopes that, at some undefined point, China will have liberalized enough that peaceful reunification will be possible.
To encourage those ties, the two governments announced on Wednesday, China and Taiwan will launch direct charter passenger flights between them during major holidays. The decision appeared to represent a step toward restoring regular direct flights cut in 1949 during civil war.
As part of China's longer-term strategy, Hu's government has high hopes that Taiwan's strongly pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party, will be voted out of office in the island's next elections, scheduled for 2008, and will be replaced by Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist Party leader, who favors better relations with the mainland.
The Bush administration and allied governments have recognized Hu's shift in Taiwan policy and base their calculations on it, according to U.S. and other veteran diplomats in Asia. As a result, they added, a partnership of sorts has evolved in which Beijing relies on the United States to ensure that Chen does nothing to push China up against a wall.
The United States has long been Taiwan's main ally, wielding heavy influence in Taipei. Since it has promised to help defend Taiwan against any Chinese attack, Washington also has its own reasons for preventing Chen from doing anything that could raise tensions.
According to Chinese sources, senior Chinese officials have explained to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others in Washington that they are concerned Chen might seek to amend the constitution in a way that implies Taiwan is legally independent. In response, they said, U.S. officials have warned Chen in public and private against making substantial changes to the document.
Chen, in a recent interview, said a number of amendments nevertheless would soon be proposed by his Democratic Progressive Party. But he said U.S. and Chinese leaders should not be worried because the opposition Nationalists, who control the legislature, would not allow them to pass. Since then, Chen has been engulfed by financial scandals involving his family; it is unclear what effect this will have on his plans.
China's adjustment was decided at senior levels of the Communist Party in the summer of 2004, shortly after Chen was reelected to a second four-year term and Beijing realized its policy was going nowhere, officials said. The Chinese decided that talk of conquering Taiwan within a short time was not fruitful and that the real answer lay in the longer-term strategy, based on making China more attractive to Taiwan's 23 million inhabitants through economic and political development, explained the academic, who is well connected on the Taiwan issue.
Taiwan has been self-ruled since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces, defeated by Mao Zedong's Communists, fled across the strait and set up an exile government. China has always maintained that Taiwan is part of the country and must return to rule by Beijing. But in recent years, Taiwan has developed into a flourishing democracy, creating an additional divide with the mainland's authoritarian, one-party Communist system. Hu's shift was in part a recognition of this new barrier to reunification.
Hu's predecessor, former president Jiang Zemin, had emphasized early reunification, by force if necessary. A number of deadlines were attributed to him -- 10 years, 15 years and 50 years -- although he never laid out a clear road map. In addition, he ordered an acceleration of China's military modernization after the Clinton administration sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait during a period of high tension in the mid-1990s.
This encouraged an enduring public debate, particularly in Taiwan and the United States, about the likelihood of an imminent Chinese military invasion. The discussion also was fed by the defection a half-dozen years ago of a People's Liberation Army colonel who revealed Chinese battle plans against the island and, more recently, by Chen's frequent assertions that China has drawn up a schedule calling for an attack in the coming years.