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Originally published February 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 24, 2005 at 1:11 AM

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Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist

Lower the volume on Taiwan

Personally, I wish the West would learn to say as little as possible about Taiwan in public. Every prime-time utterance allegedly offering...

LOS ANGELES — Personally, I wish the West would learn to say as little as possible about Taiwan in public. Every prime-time utterance allegedly offering "protection" for this tiny island of 23 million hard-working souls seems to inch us closer to a possible apocalyptic bloody mess.

The latest security "guarantee" came in a statement issued by Japan and the United States. It declared that peace in the Taiwan Strait was a "common strategic objective." This was — as far as anyone could remember — the first time Tokyo and Washington had publicly described the Taiwan issue as a joint strategic priority.

The reaction in China — population 1.3 billion and counting? Other than Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian slipping into Beijing to announce formal independence right in front of the Great Hall of the People, it would be hard to imagine anything more likely to send Beijing right up the Great Wall of China.

Taiwan is viewed on the mainland — by many, though not all — as a naughty breakaway province that should be taught a lesson and brought back into the warm embrace of Mother China. Unification, via means peaceful or not, is a core objective of any Beijing government that wishes not to be viewed by its people (and by history) as a wimp quaking in fear of outside powers.

Quickly, Japanese officials sought to play down the statement's significance — but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo is full of sharp cookies who know better and realize full well what had been wrought. They know Japan remains an object of scorn in China, no matter what the value of the growing bilateral economic relationship. China's leaders scarcely miss an opportunity to remind their people of the brutal indignities perpetrated by the Japanese on prior generations, and make a point of going publicly ballistic any time Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is sighted at a Tokyo war-memorial shrine.

Whether the Bush administration, for its part, has precisely calibrated the enormous dimensions of Chinese feeling about this vicious and open Bermuda-Triangle sore (Taipei/Tokyo/Beijing) is hard to know. But cementing the alliance with Tokyo has been an administration goal since the first term; it is honestly worried about the continuing Chinese military buildup; and it has been overtly supportive of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's steady campaign to enlarge the role of his military on the world stage, a move viewed with, understandably, mixed feelings in the rest of Asia.

Does Taiwan truly benefit from Western saber-rattling? It's doubtful. The Hu Jintao government, despite nationalist pressure for blood, has no more desire to launch a strike against Taiwan than to OK a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown — with CNN cameras rolling. But the more the West and Japan raise their voices for all on the mainland to hear, the less maneuvering room is left Beijing.

The famed law of unintended consequences is at play now: For Taiwan, instead of being further distant from harm's way after the weekend joint-declaration, is arguably more vulnerable, precisely because China, having excoriated the declaration, will now have to give the People's Liberation Army pretty much whatever it says it needs to intimidate, if not someday launch a strike against, Taiwan. Hawks in Beijing must be grateful for the ammunition presumably inadvertently provided it by the hawkish Bush administration.

If the West continues with the loudmouth approach, Taiwan may actually come to feel more threatened and less safe and, perhaps, be forced to consider acquiring a few nuclear weapons for deterrence. An absurdity, you say? Unlike North Korea, Taiwan, to be sure, does not claim to possess nuclear weapons. But you could easily make the argument that Taipei would be far more justified in having them than Pyongyang. Taiwan is a democracy, not a medieval tyranny.

Perhaps having Japan and the United States on your side in the event of threats from the mainland should be enough to ease your mind so that you don't feel the need to initiate a secret nuclear-weapons program, as North Korea says it had. But to the extent Chinese military action becomes less unlikely, Taiwan will feel less secure rather than more — no matter the Tokyo-Washington declaration.

For China has made it abundantly clear that Taiwan is a concern at the core of its identity. It may someday feel it necessary to offer some demonstration nose-banging of Taiwan to prove its mettle. If it does, Taiwan might really see the need for a nuke or two, if it doesn't have some secreted away already.

After all, North Korea says it has them, and it looks like neither China nor the U.S. will be able to do much about it. What's more, Iran looks to be getting them, and Pakistan (not exactly a past model of international deportment) already has them. As does Israel? Anyone else? So, why not Taiwan?

So long as it's kept entirely secret, of course.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network (www.asiamedia.ucla.edu).

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