[Allan Topol / AllanTopol.Com]
Lightning paced thriller writer
of International Intrigue
National Bestselling Author

An Eye On Asia
by Allan Topol, [IMAGE]2004


Photo Courtesy: Julie Zitin
[Allan Topol / AllanTopol.Com] As the Bush Administration prepares for the next four years of foreign policy, the primary focus of American decisionmakers is on the Middle East. The war in Iraq is at a critical point with elections on the horizon. Yasser Arafat’s death provides something his life never did: a ray of hope for a Palestinian state and peace with Israel.

These are to be sure major issues. At the same time, however, there are rumblings in Asia that cannot be ignored.

The two most critical are the Chinese dispute with Taiwan, and North Korea’s nuclear capability. In the Taiwanese dispute, both sides are trying to box in Washington. The Administration would desperately like to maintain the status which has existed for years. Under that ambiguous situation, China contends that Taiwan is in fact a province of the People’s Republic, while the Taiwanese contend that they have a vaguely defined status somewhere between being a Chinese province and having independence. Both sides are growing impatient with that situation and trying to force Washington’s hand.

Mindful that the United States has treaty obligations to defend democratic Taiwan if attacked by China, Taiwanese President Chen won re-election in March by lambasting China and insisting that Taiwan should move toward formal independence. Knowing full well that China would attack to retake Taiwan forcefully, if it declared independence, Chen’s election rhetoric pushed Beijing to the brink.

Since Chen’s election, Washington has been leaning hard on the Taiwanese leader to take a more moderate tone. This is a marked shift from the American policy four years ago when the Bush Administration offered extensive arms to Taiwan and promised to do what it takes to defend the island. In the past couple of months, Chen, with a strong push from Washington, has taken a softer line, insisting that he does not wish to change the status quo.

But it may be too late. The cat may already be out of the bag. China has rebuffed Chen’s recent overtures and is now openly talking about war. Coupled with this bellicose language has been a Chinese missile build up across the Taiwan Strait.

For China, there could not be a better time to retake Taiwan by force. The leaders in Beijing may believe that the U.S. military is pinned down in Iraq, and the American Congress and people would never tolerate a second war. Some commentators claim that China would never risk the economic consequences of an attack. Those people simply don’t appreciate how important the issue of Taiwan is to Beijing. Also, China has consistently learned that its economy is so powerful that it can absorb political shocks. Hence the continued crack down on dissent within China and democracy in Hong Kong.

To be sure, there has been economic integration between China and Taiwan. But Beijing has dictated the terms of this economic development. For example, there are still no direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland. Economic integration is not political union. The rulers in Beijing may be pragmatic. They are also ideologues.

Sensing all of this, Secretary of State Colin Powell last month tilted U.S. policy more toward Beijing. He made it clear that Taiwan had no basis to claim it was or should be independent. But with Powell on his way out, one wonders if there will be a further twist in American policy.

On the same Asian trip, Powell grappled with the thorny problem of the North Korea nuclear issue. There is a connection here with Taiwan. With the Administration desperate to find a way to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the prevailing view in Washington is that Chinese help is vital. The easiest way to obtain that Chinese assistance is by further pressure on Taiwan.

The risk of a nuclear armed North Korea is so unsettling that at the end of the day, there are some in Washington who would serve up Taiwan to Beijing (in quiet diplomacy of course) to avoid that result. “Sorry Mr. Chen, but we have bigger fish to fry.”

Then there is the further complication that both of these issues are close to Japan and in areas in which Tokyo has asserted its own influence. With an expanding military anxious to flex its muscles, Japan is not about to stand by in silence while its historical enemy China grows more and more powerful. On the other side, enmity toward Japan for actions during the Second World War has not subsided in China and Korea.

Let’s not delude ourselves into believing that Asia is Western Europe. The powder kegs left behind in 1945 could easily be reignited. Memories are long in Asia. Where emotions run strong, rationality does not always prevail.