Commentary Magazine

Two Chinas?


To the Editor:

Arthur Waldron’s conclusion that the U.S. should support Taiwan is appealing, but the way he arrives at it is misleading [“Our Stake in Taiwan,” October 2004]. Taiwan is deeply divided over its national identity and over whether it should ultimately unite with mainland China. In a controversial presidential election last March that is still being disputed, the pro-independence camp beat the pro-unification camp by a mere 2-percent margin. It is difficult for even a mature democratic system to handle such a fundamental social schism, let alone for a nascent democracy. That Taiwan is struggling to overcome its internal divisions through orderly, legal procedures demonstrates that its democratic system works and that it is worthy of U.S. support.

But Mr. Waldron’s argument relies too heavily on Taiwan’s right to self-determination as a non-Chinese nation. This is not the population’s consensus, and only represents a half-truth. Taiwanese nationalism is not a natural growth from the island’s historical roots. It has been manufactured in a highly charged political environment, and is as artificial and state-manipulated as the old Chinese nationalism advocated by the Kuomintang. In many nascent democracies, notably in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states, election-driven nationalism has acted to ignite ethnic strife and break up nations. One cannot be too careful in seconding such nationalistic movements, including in Taiwan.

Mr. Waldron also errs in depicting the U.S. as siding with mainland China to suppress Taiwan. On the contrary, U.S. support has been the single most important factor in Taiwan’s stance against pressure from China. No U.S. administration fails to understand that the status quo best serves American interests. This means that Beijing should abstain from using force and Taiwan should refrain from attempting to separate permanently from the mainland. Poll after poll suggests that mainstream opinion in Taiwan agrees.

The most intelligent strategy that Washington can pursue is to suppress nationalistic moves on both sides. It would be unwise to endorse Taiwanese nationalism and inadvertently precipitate a showdown in the Taiwan Strait.

Yu-Shan Wu

Academia Sinica



To the Editor:

Few would argue with Arthur Waldron’s assertion that Washington should maintain a close relationship with Taipei. But one must not underestimate Taiwan’s historical and cultural links to China, trivialize America’s steadfast support for Taiwan to date, or misjudge Washington’s need for a constructive relationship with Beijing.

The Manchu Qing dynasty’s two centuries of influence in Taiwan, from 1687 until 1895, facilitated migration and the gradual spread of Chinese settlement on the island. The aboriginal inhabitants of Taiwan now constitute only 2 percent of its population. China lost Taiwan to the Empire of Japan in the first Sino-Japanese war, but following Japan’s defeat by the Allies in World War II, the island was returned to the Republic of China (ROC). When China was split by civil war in 1949 and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) occupied the mainland, the ROC government retreated to Taiwan. Thus, while the ROC’s territory had changed, the state remained essentially intact. As one Taiwanese governmental study concluded, “that the ROC has been an independent sovereign state since its establishment in 1912 is an incontrovertible historical fact.”

In 1987, Taipei lifted the ban on travel, trade, and investment with the PRC. Today, the Taiwanese have invested over $100 billion in the PRC, and several hundred thousand Taiwanese live on the mainland. Links between the two societies continue to grow. It is true that many ROC citizens now consider themselves exclusively “Taiwanese,” but polls reveal that if China were to undertake political and economic reforms, support for unification would rise. If, on the other hand, China continues to engage in hostile behavior, it will succeed only in stirring up passions that could lead to a disastrous confrontation between the two sides.

One cannot overstate how strongly the Chinese people feel about Taiwan. They believe it to be, like Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that must be returned to the motherland. Moreover, China’s leaders fear that Taiwan’s independence would encourage other restive territories to push for separation. As the late General Chiang Wei-kuo, son of President Chiang Kai-shek, explained, “if Taiwan can be independent, Tibet can be independent, Xinjiang can be independent, Inner Mongolia can be independent—the whole country could fall apart.” China will not tolerate the establishment of a new Republic of Taiwan.

For decades, the U.S. recognized the ROC as the legitimate government of all China. Due to a shift in global alignments, Washington broke diplomatic relations with Taipei and established relations with Beijing in 1979. But America’s informal relations with Taiwan are stronger than ever. On April 25, 2001 President Bush even indicated that the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan against attack by China. Contrary to what Mr. Waldron suggests, the U.S. is not pushing for unification. The Taiwan Relations Act and all of the U.S.-PRC communiqués state clearly that the U.S. favors a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. But, as one U.S. government study concluded, the U.S. “has not expressed any opinion on the form the ultimate resolution might take.” Furthermore, in a condition introduced during the Clinton administration, U.S. policy now stresses that any resolution must be acceptable to the Taiwanese people.

Like its predecessors, the Bush administration realizes that it is in America’s interest to maintain a strong, constructive relationship with Taiwan and China. There is more than trade at stake. Beijing’s cooperation is essential if the international community hopes to address global problems like terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. To its credit, the Bush administration has somehow managed to upgrade relations with Taipei while simultaneously deepening the U.S. relationship with Beijing. Inviting the Taiwanese president to a dinner at the White House (something Mr. Waldron proposes) is not a way to achieve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. To reach that goal, the U.S. must somehow convince the two sides to display more flexibility in their relations with each other and work together to resolve their differences peacefully.

Dennis V. Hickey

Southwest Missouri State University

Springfield, Missouri


To the Editor:

Arthur Waldron is one of a handful of historians of Chinese geopolitics brave enough to confront the bad habits of Washington’s China policy. His discussion of Henry Kissinger’s overtures to China 35 years ago should stimulate readers to revisit how we became virtual allies with China in the first place, and what has changed since.

In his memoir, White House Years, Kissinger recounts his concern in 1969 that a Soviet preemptive nuclear strike on China —a real possibility then—would “upset the global balance of power; it would create around the world an impression of approaching Soviet dominance.” A U.S.-China entente emerged, as Kissinger explains, because “history suggested that it was usually more advantageous to align oneself with the weaker of two antagonistic partners, because this acted as a restraint on the stronger.”

The relationship incubated during the 1970’s as both powers tacitly shared an interest in constraining the USSR. The normalization of relations in 1979 launched a decade of active intelligence and military cooperation against Soviet expansion. Not coincidentally, this new strategic partnership was accompanied by an unprecedented period of economic reform and political liberalization in China through the 1980’s. Americans reasonably believed that China was evolving into a country that not only shared U.S. security interests but potentially was open to our political values as well. This belief climaxed during the six weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, but it was shattered on June 4 of that year by the government’s brutal suppression of the democracy movement.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the basic organizing principle of the U.S.-China strategic partnership vanished. While the U.S. reaped a post-cold war “peace dividend” in reduced defense spending, China’s military modernization went into overdrive. By 1996, a Chinese general had threatened Los Angeles with nuclear destruction should America aid Taiwan in a cross-strait conflict. But instead of rethinking the fundamentals of America’s national interests, Washington’s foreign-policy bureaucracy continued on autopilot. China was “big”, Taiwan was “small”; ergo, China was “important” and Taiwan was not.

Mr. Waldron rightly asks why American policy-makers discount our stake in Taiwan. It has the world’s seventeenth-largest economy (on a par with Russia’s) and is America’s tenth-largest export market. It has East Asia’s fifth-largest military and Asia’s second-largest merchant-marine fleet (after China’s). It has nearly twice the population of Australia. It has been one of America’s staunchest allies and is perennially a top customer for U.S. defense equipment. With the Pentagon’s recent approval of long-range radar systems for Taiwan’s army, the island could be a vital link in America’s global missile-defense architecture.

Instead of “China big, Taiwan small,” the guiding principle of America’s strategy should be that “Taiwan is a democracy, China is not.” Any halfway intelligent China-Taiwan calculus would also ask where U.S. interests in the Pacific lie. In a China that has successfully cowed Taiwan into submission, or in a Taiwan that can successfully resist Anschluss with China?

Arthur Waldron deserves our thanks for putting these questions into strategic and historical perspective.

John Tkacik

Heritage Foundation

Washington, D.C.



Arthur Waldron writes:

Discussion of the Taiwan-China relationship has become so clouded over the past thirty years, including by vast quantities of doubletalk from Washington and Beijing, that in preparing my article I felt my first duty was simply to tell the truth as well as I could. Three commonplace opinions struck me as being factually unsustainable.

The first unsustainable opinion was that the American policy of cutting all diplomatic and military relations with Taiwan, carried out by President Carter in 1979, had been a success. It most certainly was not that, not even in its own terms. Carter sought to deliver a fatal blow to the island, expecting that, after a decent interval, its dictatorial government, dominated by Chinese, would reach over the heads of its disenfranchised people to embrace “peaceful reunification”—and thus eliminate the troublesome issue from Washington-Beijing relations. Wherever else the Carter administration’s ill-thought-out policy may have led, it did not lead to this objective, and thus must be said to have failed.

Second, the Carter policy is never going to lead to its objective. The people of now democratic Taiwan seem most unlikely to vote to join the People’s Republic of China in any sort of genuinely free democratic procedure. All parties understand this fact: hence China’s immense military build-up against Taiwan and regular threats to use force.

But, third, China’s repeated threats to use force, while dangerous and necessary to counter, are also not persuasive. With China’s economy utterly dependent upon American markets, which would be closed in event of conflict, and with any such war certain to be costly, highly destructive, and most likely inconclusive, and with the Olympics looming, Beijing will likely find reasons to postpone.

So the 1970’s scenario by which the two sides reach a mutually acceptable settlement through negotiation is dead. It is simply not going to happen, probably not even if China should become a fully constitutional, free, and democratic state.

What is worse, in the 1970’s the United States burned nearly every bridge that might have led to other outcomes. We retained no official diplomatic presence in Taipei. By failing to insist on continuing representation for Taiwan in the United Nations, we provided crucial help to Beijing in ostracizing the island from the international community. Worst of all, perhaps, the Nixon administration agreed more than three decades ago that the U.S. would not support “two Chinas; one China, one Taiwan; or an independent Taiwan”—thus effectively ruling out all possible solutions save integration with China.

The result was to confront Taiwan with a future, written by others, that offered its people no democratically acceptable option. This started a search for exits that polarized politics in the island, destabilizing the situation in the Taiwan Strait and potentially in Asia more widely. Oddly, we have blamed the Taiwanese for this, when of course it was our policy change (of which they were informed without warning by a phone call in the small hours) that threw things into disarray.

Such, I think, are the facts. Certainly none of my correspondents challenges this basic narrative. Rather, they are concerned with what to do now.

I owe Yu-shan Wu an apology if I have conveyed the impression that I do not appreciate the “Chinese” aspects of Taiwan. Far from it. I began my study of Chinese there more than 30 years ago and now, as a professor, I cannot but be aware of the superb quality of Sinological and other research being produced by his Academia Sinica. My own university has recently hired a Taiwan University graduate to teach Chinese history. China certainly has many brilliant and creative scholars, but the knowledge loss owing to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the continuing close political control of education have taken their toll. Following on this, I am of course well aware of the deep feeling of many in Taiwan that they are “Chinese,” though not subjects of Beijing.

A word about Mr. Wu’s generous observation that “U.S. support has been the single most important factor in Taiwan’s stance against pressure from China”: this is certainly true, but it was not what Kissinger, Nixon, or Carter hoped for. Rather, it is due to the cunning of history. Soon after President Carter signed what he thought was Taiwan’s death warrant, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which, manifesting the strong views of the American people, guaranteed a far more robust degree of support than the then President wanted. That legislation, not the Carter policy, is what (along with Taipei’s decision to democratize) saved the island.

As for the present moment, I agree with Mr. Wu that the wisest approach is to focus on tasks like perfecting the island’s democracy and judiciary, eliminating criminal activities in government, improving infrastructure, education, defense, and so forth, until the point where a consensus is reached in Taiwan. Washington might then be persuaded to signal, privately at first, that the 1970’s attempt to do away with Taiwan has failed and that a new approach is required, while China might be simultaneously persuaded to give up its expectation that Washington will somehow force Taiwan to terms and instead begin to talk seriously to the elected government in Taipei. I made these points forcefully in an address late last year to the World Taiwanese Congress, a largely pro-independence organization, meeting in Washington. The full text can be found at

I have one caveat, however, aimed more at Washington and Beijing than at the people of Taiwan. This is that the processes of history cannot be stopped, and maintaining the status quo can be at best a transitional phase. Taiwan is a dynamic society that will not tolerate limbo forever, and so is China. Instead of attempting the impossible, which is to stop change on both sides of the strait, we should be looking for a genuine solution that will restore to Taiwan much of what was so unwisely stripped away in the 1970’s. It is a state and a power and a player. Some in America argue that our Taiwan policy is based on “necessary myths.” How about instead a diplomacy based on confronting reality?

Dennis V. Hickey is one of our country’s genuine authorities on this topic, and I agree broadly with his well-informed comments, but with some reservations.

First, the United States, which became, in effect, the fiduciary responsible for Taiwan by virtue of Japan’s defeat and loss of its erstwhile colony, has never recognized Chinese sovereignty over the island. Our position, made clear both in Kissin- ger’s secret conversations with Zhou Enlai and President Reagan’s “six assurances” in 1982, is that the sovereignty of the island under international law remains to be determined. Thus, we recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s government as having administrative control but not sovereignty, and the same is true for the democratically elected government of Chen Shuibian today, as Secretary of State Colin Powell recently made clear. In the 1970’s we thought the question of sovereignty would become moot when Taiwan joined China. In other cases, such as East Timor or Ukraine, plebiscites are the standard under international law. For now, China simply will not accept this.

Second, I wonder whether it really is impossible to “overstate how strongly the Chinese people feel about Taiwan.” Last August, when I visited China as part of a semi-official delegation, I was lectured in Beijing by two very high-ranking officials on just this point—which prompted me to ask for polling data to support the contention. My Chinese interlocutors could produce none, and urged me simply to go out and “talk to people.” I pointed out that to do so would be illegal, for Chinese law forbids any opinion-polling on the Taiwan question specifically. In the absence of free debate and accurate opinion surveys, we have no way of knowing what the Chinese people, as opposed to their rulers, think.

I do not believe the current hard line would survive a genuine democratic transition. We got those lectures only in Beijing—where one high official had to be reminded to say her bit after she thought she had finished. In Shanghai, official comments were quite different, while in other cities Taiwan was not even mentioned.

Finally, the remark by Chiang Wei-kuo, the less gifted of Chiang Kai-shek’s two sons, is true: “If Taiwan can be independent, Tibet can be independent, Xinjiang can be independent, Inner Mongolia can be independent—the whole country could fall apart.” It is not only true, but likely. Beijing today claims not the territory of the indubitably Chinese Ming dynasty but rather the empire—including Tibet, Xinjiang, and so forth—that was assembled by the non-Chinese Manchus, and of which China itself was a component part. I see no way of keeping this archaic structure together while modernizing and liberalizing at the same time. China has already let go of Mongolia: why not begin the inevitable process of devolution now?

I can only thank John Tkacik, one of the tiny handful of Americans who really know Taiwan, for his kind remarks and useful additions to what I wrote. Our interest in Asia lies in an entente of democracies able to balance China so long as it remains a dictatorship and military threat, and also to serve as an example of how it might move forward.

Just such an entente would appear to be developing. The overseas Chinese press noted in November that a Chinese nuclear submarine, whose cruise through Japanese territorial waters has no doubt provoked a thorough reexamination of Tokyo’s security policy, was spotted first by a U.S. satellite and then by a Taiwan patrol aircraft, with both countries immediately informing Japan. Through such cooperation, peace and security in Asia will be assured, and pressure brought on China to change. Perhaps this is the insight from which Washington’s necessary new China-Taiwan policy can take its cue.

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