TAIPEIThe waters across the Taiwan Strait are now choppy. That is less because of
a gathering storm than because winds blow one way and the currents run another.
On each side there is heightened tension between political and economic
objectives. Right now, economics has the upper hand.
Washington and Beijing have put recent
rhetoric, and their longer-term mutual suspicion and rivalry, behind them for
now. Major progress has been made toward resolving the remaining obstacles to
China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
China has been engaging in another round
of war games along the coast opposite Taiwan, appearing to suggest yet again
that the war option remains should the United States encourage adventurism by
Taiwan. While playing up the games for some of its domestic audience, in the
process giving face to the army, Beijing has been playing them down for Taiwan
and foreign consumption.
Economic interests still take precedence
over yielding to the nationalist and conservative forces which want a more
robust attitude toward the United States, a quicker timetable for bringing
Taiwan to heel and a slowdown in market-oriented economic reform.
With President George W. Bush set to
visit for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in Shanghai in
October, this bodes well for the crucial period leading to the Party Congress
next year, when President Jiang Zemin must retire.
Mr. Jiang's legacy cannot now include any
major progress towards reunification, but it should definitely include WTO
membership. There is just a chance that if relations with America remain on even
keel, once the Taiwan election is out of the way some real progress on
cross-strait relations will be possible.
Joint WTO membership could provide cover
for a softening in China's definition of One China. That could open the way to
the long-delayed establishment of direct trade links, for which Mr. Jiang could
claim credit. It is a possibility, not a probability, but prospects are better
than at any time since high-level talks were broken off in mid-1995.
In Taiwan, economic pressure for better
cross-strait relations has never been stronger, particularly from the business
community. The benefits of direct trade and the investment opportunities offered
by China's buoyant economy may be exaggerated, but they are real.
There is recognition that joining the WTO
is good for both sides of the strait. Bearing the brunt of a collapse in U.S.
electronics demand, Taiwan in general and its minority government in particular
are feeling vulnerable. Most have been happy to hear President Bush's commitment
to Taiwan's defense, but Taiwan has been careful to avoid triumphalism.
There is plenty that could douse
optimism. A further U.S. economic downturn could generate a surge of anti-China
protectionist sentiment before the WTO deal is finalized. Unrest in China could
lead Mr. Jiang to backtrack on economic reform and wrap himself in anti-American
nationalist sentiments. The Bush administration could lose its balance in its
attempt to reassert U.S. interests and values without causing a major rift with
But beyond the current economic gloom in
Taipei is a glimmer of political optimism that it will be possible to advance
cross-strait ties without changing the political status quo.