Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Comment: Collision Course to Catastrophe

Taiwan's bid for United Nations membership could spark a serious crisis with China, which warned the self-ruled island Tuesday that its planned referendum on joining the world body could endanger regional peace.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province. An Anti-Secession Law authorizes use of force against Taiwan if it moves toward formal independence or if it refuses reunification under Chinese terms. Genuine negotiations are a non-starter.

To back up its threat, Beijing has amassed an arsenal of ballistic missiles opposite the island; at least 100 are added annually; and the People's Liberation Army is clearly preparing for invasion and conquest.

Antisatellite and cyberwarfare tests are aimed at disrupting US military communications. The modernization and expansion of the Chinese navy is in large measure aimed at deterring the US from intervening in a future cross-Strait conflict.

Taiwan's pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, believes he has a window of opportunity that will permanently shut tight after the closing ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Chen is betting that China won't dare attack Taiwan before the games. His thinking reflects the conventional wisdom: the Olympics are too important to mess up; Beijing won't make the mistake Moscow made by invading Afghanistan only a half-year ahead of its 1980 summer Olympic Games.

But the conventional wisdom could be dead wrong. The PLA's credibility is more important than the Communist Party's politics of prestige. Red China has a red line, which Taiwan should avoid crossing if at all possible.

No nation--including the US--is prepared to risk a war with China in order to defend Taiwan. As much as the island may deserve its independence, it is alone and adrift, alienated from an international community that is committed to accommodating--or appeasing--China's rise.

The US is obligated to help Taiwan to defend itself under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act. But defense is subject to interpretation. Selling arms is one thing; fighting is another matter, entirely. Bogged down in Iraq, the US is desperately seeking China's help in dealing with Iran and North Korea. The last thng Washington wants is a confrontation with China.

There is an urgent need for effective diplomacy....