The US Stumbles Over North Korea, Taiwan

National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice’s Asia trip produced several noteworthy developments. Although topics of conversation included trade and human rights, the talks with Chinese, Japanese and Korean officials revolved around the two major points of conflict in the region: North Korea and Taiwan.

The first important development is the role of Jiang Zemin, former President and current Chairman of the Central Military Commission. The power struggle between Jiang Zemin and President Hu Jintao provides an interesting backdrop to Rice’s trip. Jiang Zemin met with Rice first and it was he who stated Chinese policy vis a vis Taiwan. President Hu’s comments did not reach the mainstream international media and were paraphrased in the People’s Daily, while Jiang’s statement was televised.

Jiang Zemin has been relatively low-profile during the multi-party talks last month and last year. His “sudden” emergence during Rice’s trip as China’s spokesman on the Taiwan issue and the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to resume the informal meetings traditionally held each summer in Beidahe – going against President Hu’s order – point toward a struggle that may be leaning in Jiang’s favor. The recent spate of promotions within the military – at Jiang’s behest – is a further indication of Jiang’s ambition.

Another important development is the decision of Taiwanese leaders to increase high-level meetings between Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian’s supporters and Beijing officials. This, along with the Taiwanese decision to completely overhaul the constitution through a “panel of constitutional scholars” starting next year, point toward a shift in Taiwan’s appraisal of the relationship with the Mainland.

Increased visits imply Taiwan is worried about China’s recent aggressive statements regarding Taiwanese independence and Chen Shuibian personally. Beijing has said in the past that it will not discuss matters with Chen – but perhaps Chen’s deputies can assuage the Mainland’s fears concerning a “new” constitution and the issue of referendums.

Chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Joseph Wu’s statement that the constitutional reforms represent further steps toward democratic consolidation is also noteworthy. Taiwan sees the handover of Hong Kong as a template for what may happen if Taiwan and the Mainland eventually agree on unification.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law has proven inadequate in protecting the democratic freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed under British rule. The results have been propaganda campaigns by Beijing urging greater patriotic fervor and love for the Communist Party (reminiscent of past Party campaigns to retain its grip on power), massive demonstrations two years in a row and the creation of a movement of sorts, the Spirit of July, which is gaining momentum in Hong Kong and may eventually be viewed by Beijing hardliners as subversive.

Taiwan’s moves to solidify the political process as it is in Taiwan and to increase high-level discussions with Beijing may be preparations for eventual unification.

Worrying is the U.S. administration’s inability to settle on a policy toward Taiwan. While Chinese media announce Rice’s support for a “one China,” Assistant Seceretary of State James Kelly testifies testifies before Congress that America’s policy toward Taiwan – although ambiguous in most respects – is clear in one: not Beijing’s policy.

This same Congress now has a resolution to consider – supported by at least 100 Congressmen – that demands recognition of Taiwan. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is obligated to protect Taiwan from military aggression – this obligation forces China to build up its own forces, forcing the U.S. to sell more weapons to Taiwan. Such a law is an impediment to a peaceful resolution and keeps tensions across the straits high.

Beijing and the U.S. continue to talk past each other, with each clinging to a status quo unacceptable to the other: The U.S. for no unilateral moves, China for an acceptance that Taiwan and China are one, excluding any bilateral moves.

In the end, Taiwan must decide for itself and make a unilateral move toward unification or independence while the two great powers glower at each other.

The last and most distressing development involves the military build-up on the Korean peninsula. South Korean officials claim that North Korea has deployed more missiles with an even longer reach than previous missiles shot into the Pacific, while U.S. soldiers are being rotated out of Korea toward Iraq and replaced by Stealth bombers.

The U.S. position in both cases seems to be as follows: accept our definition of a solution or we will use force. Beijing and Pyongyang then respond in kind, militarizing Asia and forcing Japan to reassess its armed forces, heightening tensions even further.

With the U.S.’ reputation already in the mud over the Middle East, the current administration can only come across in Asia as heavy-handed and desperate to hold on to Cold War-era military footholds.