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It's in Beijing's own interest to make Taipei feel secure

FREDERIC J. BROWN

China's reaction to the U.S. announcement of a large arms sales package for Taiwan suggests that 20 months after Taipei replaced hostility with co-operation in its dealings with the mainland, Beijing still believes it will ultimately need to use force to bring about unification.

The vociferous reaction, which includes not only suspending military-to-military relations with the United States but also sanctions against the U.S. producers and suppliers, appears to suggest that Beijing does not appreciate the fact that Barack Obama's administration ensured the weapons are purely defensive in nature.

The bulk of the $6.4-billion (U.S.) package consists of Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters and minesweepers meant to defend Taiwan. These weapons cannot be used to attack the mainland.

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China seems to want a Taiwan that is militarily impotent. But a Taiwan that feels desperate is more likely to behave irrationally than one that feels secure. And only when Taiwan feels secure is it likely to voluntarily enter into agreements with China, as it has been.

China should also try not to damage the increasingly precarious political position of Ma Ying-jeou, who faces re-election in 2012. The Taiwanese President's support ratings have plunged precipitously since he first assumed office in 2008 and his party, the Kuomintang, has suffered embarrassing reverses in recent local and legislative by-elections. If he is unable to buy defensive weapons from the United States, his support will erode even further.

The alternative to Mr. Ma's administration is a return of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party - it's in China's own interest to keep Mr. Ma in power and, hence, to accept that he needs to see to the island's defence needs. Beijing has to remember that Taiwan is a democracy and that Mr. Ma must demonstrate he is acting in the voters' interests.

It is also necessary for Beijing to be patient. It should not pressure Taiwan to take part in political talks before it feels ready.

China should also re-examine its own options for a future relationship with Taiwan. Its current insistence that China is a unitary state and Taiwan merely a subordinate unit should be studied to see if there are viable alternatives. It might be easier to envisage unification if the options were broader.

After all, as a group of senior Communist elders recently pointed out, the party's position in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s was that China should become a federal republic. Perhaps it was politically expedient to advocate that position before the establishment of the People's Republic. But perhaps it is now again politically expedient to advocate such a position, or at least not oppose it, in order to reach out to Taiwan.

Another option is a confederation - a somewhat looser union, since its members can in theory leave if they wish. A confederation has been proposed for the Palestinians and Jordanians.

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Another possibility is a commonwealth. Members of the grouping Canada belongs to, for example, pay allegiance to the British crown even though they are independent countries. Conceivably, Taiwan and the mainland could both be part of a Chinese commonwealth.

Even Mr. Ma's predecessor, the independence-minded Chen Shui-bian, was willing to consider some kind of political unification. One possibility mentioned used the European Union as a model.

Beijing vetoed the idea since all the components of the EU are sovereign states, and it insists that Taiwan is not now and can never become a sovereign state.

But should this position, too, be re-examined? After all, as Deng Xiaoping said, it doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it can catch mice. What's important is the end result.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer.

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