Over the past decade, the American foreign-policy establishment has been preoccupied above all with the aftereffects of the collapse of the Soviet empire in Europe. But meanwhile, in Asia, the ground has been laid for a potentially deadly confrontation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. The most probable cause of such a confrontation is an issue to which, until very recently, only a handful of experts have devoted any attention and about which our political leaders have spoken scarcely a word: the fate of the people of Taiwan.
Taiwan has now held its second presidential election, and, with the victory on March 18 of Chen Shui-bian and the Democratic Progressive party, it has cleared what is usually regarded as the final hurdle on the road to stable democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. That this event has been greeted in Washington more with fear than with admiration is both troubling and revealing. Indeed, the relationship of the United States toward this young Asian democracy remains entangled by a history of diplomatic evasiveness—as well as, lately, by a seriously misguided effort to accommodate mainland China.
The foundations of current U.S. policy were laid in two very different documents: the so-called Shanghai communiqué of 1972 and the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA). These pieces of paper represent the yin and yang of American diplomacy, the first being a classic illustration of the geopolitician’s art, hammered out in secret by high-level negotiators, the second a public declaration of congressional sentiment, motivated more by ideology and outrage than by a coldblooded calculation of national interest.
In the early 1970’s, the United States and the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) were eager to move toward improved relations. Each side wished to enlist the other for its own purposes, and both wanted to counterbalance the growing power of the Soviet Union. The primary obstacle preventing their rapprochement was the remarkable fact that, after more than 20 years of Communist-party rule in Beijing, the United States was still refusing to recognize the regime there. Instead, we remained officially committed to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) government on the island of Taiwan as the legitimate ruler of all China.
There is a history here. Briefly, Taiwan was claimed by China only in the late 17th century. It was then lost to imperial Japan in 1895, and was not returned to Chinese control until the end of World War II. In 1949, following their defeat at the hands of Chinese Communist forces, large numbers of KMT troops fled to Taiwan from the mainland and established the Republic of China. The United States soon began to supply the regime with arms, and in 1954 the two nations entered into a mutual defense pact.
Needless to say, this tie posed something of an embarrassment to Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger as they approached their opposite numbers in Beijing. What Chairman Mao Zedong and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai wanted in exchange for a more regular relationship was for the Americans to cut all ties to Taiwan and effectively to hand it back to the mainland. But Nixon and Kissinger, however eager they may have been to seal their grand strategic bargain, were well aware that the Taiwanese, who still had strong and influential friends in Washington, could not be so easily or obviously cast adrift. After lengthy negotiations, the two sides reached their fateful understanding: awkwardly embracing the official positions of both Taipei and Beijing, the United States acknowledged that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.”
While Nixon and Kissinger did not promise immediately to abrogate the U.S.-Taiwan defense pact, they did pledge eventually to withdraw “all U.S. forces and military installations” from the island. At the same time, over strenuous Chinese objections, the American side reaffirmed “its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question.” Without taking a public stand on the outlines of such a settlement, Nixon and Kissinger privately reassured their hosts that the U.S. would not support Taiwanese independence.
It was left to the Carter administration to pay the final price for full diplomatic “normalization.” At the end of 1978, Carter agreed to Beijing’s terms: the United States would terminate its defense treaty with Taiwan, withdraw any remaining military personnel, and sever all formal diplomatic ties, “de-recognizing” the Taiwan-based Republic of China and accepting the People’s Republic in its place as “the sole legal government of China.”
But now Congress stepped in, troubled by this shabby treatment of an ally and angry at not having been consulted by the executive branch. To stiffen the residual U.S. commitment to the island, it passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) by veto-proof majorities in both houses; reluctantly, President Carter signed it into law. In the language of the TRA, which remains in force today, we pledge ourselves to regard “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, [as] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific,” and, most significantly, we promise to “make available to Taiwan such quantity [of arms] as may be necessary to enable [it] to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
American policy is thus built on a contradiction: the United States does not acknowledge Taiwan’s existence as an autonomous political entity, but it is committed by law to provide Taiwan with the arms it needs to defend its autonomy.
Despite its evident awkwardness, the structure put in place in the 1970’s proved remarkably sturdy. The U.S.-PRC relationship flourished, and Taiwan was able to survive despite its diplomatic isolation. In the last decade, however, three interrelated developments combined to undermine the status quo. First, Taiwan became a genuinely democratic country. Next, and largely as a result, the mainland grew increasingly aggressive in its efforts to force Taiwan to submit to its rule. Lastly, the American response to this mounting Chinese pressure became wavering and dangerously weak. Let us take these matters one by one.
Cold-war rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, Taiwan under the nationalist rule of Chiang Kai-shek was no bastion of democracy. The KMT ruled with an iron fist, crushing all domestic dissent and occasionally murdering its opponents. But in the mid-1980’s this began to change when Chiang’s son and successor, President Chiang Ching-kuo, initiated a series of political reforms. Martial law was lifted, opposition parties legalized, political prisoners released, and restraints on public debate relaxed. The process of reform culminated ten years later in a freely contested presidential election. In 1996, KMT chief Lee Teng-hui became the first popularly elected Chinese leader in history.
Today, although Taiwanese democracy is not perfect—corruption in particular remains a big problem—the island has made remarkable progress. In Freedom House’s annual survey ranking the world’s nations on a scale from one to seven, it now earns twos for political rights and civil liberties respectively. (France earns a one and a two, the U.S. earns two ones.)
One consequence of this democratization has been the increasingly free discussion among the Taiwanese of what exactly the island’s future should be. During the period of one-party rule, it was an act of treason to suggest that the Taipei government might abandon its claim to all of China. Today, the full range of possibilities can be freely debated, up to and including eventual, formal independence.
Indeed, liberalization has enhanced domestic support for movement in this direction. For years, the ruling KMT party had been dominated by a minority born on the mainland, while the native Taiwanese majority, most of whom could trace their ancestral roots on the island several hundred years back, were denied a political voice. Now that they have a say, many turn out to evince little interest in, or enthusiasm for, reunification; their Taiwanese identity is more important to them than any sense of ethnic fellow-feeling with Chinese on the mainland. The relaxation of travel restrictions—another fruit of liberalization—has also played a role in this process by reinforcing perceptions of the PRC as a corrupt and brutally repressive place.
Taiwan’s democratic transformation has also begun to alter public attitudes in the United States. The KMT’s authoritarian regime enjoyed little grassroots support in this country. But since the early 1990’s, polls have registered a slow rise in the numbers of Americans who regard Taiwan with “warmth”; it now ranks slightly above South Korea in this regard and slightly below Japan, Israel, and France. How the American people would react to a future confrontation between Taiwan and the mainland cannot be predicted in advance—much would depend on how such a conflict was portrayed by our political leaders—but if what Americans see when their attention is drawn to the western Pacific is a small, doughty democracy confronting a big, aggressive Communist power, there can be little question where their sympathies would lie.
As for the PRC, it would be the grossest understatement to say that recent developments on Taiwan have caused it anxiety. Chinese nervousness is in large part a reaction to the sense that Taiwan may be wriggling out of its isolation, abandoning the “one China” formula and perhaps preparing to declare itself an independent, sovereign state. But of course the PRC is also responding to what Taiwan has become: its very visible success in achieving both economic prosperity and political reform is a threat to continued one-party Communist rule on the mainland.
The current crop of Chinese leaders is, moreover, less prestigious, less secure, and consequently more belligerent than those who came before. Jiang Zemin and his cohort preside over a country in which respect for the prevailing ideology has dwindled and in which the Communist party’s authority seems to depend increasingly on the ability to generate continued economic progress while also mobilizing nationalist sentiment. To “lose” Taiwan would thus be a devastating, perhaps even a fatal, blow to the PRC regime, one that Jiang and his colleagues are likely to go to considerable lengths to avoid. On the other hand, they may also be willing to gamble a great deal in hopes of achieving a decisive victory in the form of reunification, on China’s terms.
For the time being, what has clearly made sense to Beijing is a policy of ratcheting up the pressure: threats and saber-rattling designed at once to frighten those on the island who might favor independence and to deter outside powers from intervening. An atmosphere of urgency and danger also helps to rally popular support at home—opposition to Taiwanese independence is genuine and strongly felt in China—and to smooth over internal differences. Finally, provided that it does not lurch out of control, a heightened confrontation over Taiwan is especially useful to the Chinese military, always in need of justifications for a bigger budget and for a plausible and challenging scenario for the use of force.
In trying to come up with ways to coerce Taiwan and counter the possibility of American intervention, Chinese military planners have been exploring new technologies and concepts of operation. China’s recent interest in information warfare, its ongoing mass production of short-range conventional ballistic missiles, its efforts to enhance the survivability and striking power of its intercontinental-range nuclear forces, and its pursuit of weapons capable of neutralizing American aircraft carriers, submarines, stealth aircraft, and satellites—all are driven by a desire to find military solutions to the Taiwan problem.
It is the short-range missile portion of this overall Chinese military program that is the most fully developed. The PRC is generally believed to have some 200 missiles already pointed across the Taiwan Strait. This past fall, U.S. intelligence detected two new missile bases under construction, each capable of firing close to 100 additional weapons. The Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly expects the total arsenal aimed at Taiwan to grow to 650 by the year 2005. For the moment at least, the island has virtually no capacity to defend itself against a massive missile barrage.
The coercive potential of these arms has already been demonstrated. In 1995, during the run-up to Taiwan’s first open presidential election, President Lee Teng-hui asked permission to enter the United States to attend a reunion of his graduate-school class at Cornell University. Despite the fact that he was to travel as a private citizen, with no claim to recognition as a head of state, the State Department feared his visit would offend Chinese sensibilities. But instead of simply denying him access, the Clinton White House wavered and then, under pressure from Congress, let him enter. To this display of confusion, Beijing reacted with furious denunciations, followed by a fusillade of missiles fired into Taiwan’s coastal waters.
The same menacing gesture was repeated in the spring of 1996 as the island’s voters were preparing to go to the polls, compelling Washington to send two carrier battle groups as a token of U.S. disapproval and a warning against even more forceful Chinese action. Lee went on to win a majority on election day, but, across the Pacific, China’s missiles had found their mark. The crisis struck fear in the hearts of President Clinton and his top advisers, convincing them of the need to bolster U.S.-PRC relations at almost any cost. The dispatch of the carriers, it would emerge, marked the apogee of administration courage in dealing with China.
Ever since, the Clinton White House has done everything in its power to build a “strategic partnership” with Beijing. As part of this overall effort, it has bent over backward to reassure the PRC that it does not support, and will not sanction, Taiwan independence. Former government officials have suggested that Washington may not come to Taiwan’s assistance in the event that the island declares independence or even prepares to hold a referendum on the subject.
Behind closed doors, the administration has joined Beijing in pressuring Taipei to negotiate. In public, President Clinton has gone farther than any of his predecessors in trying to conform to Beijing’s formulas, most notoriously on a 1998 visit when he repeated certain longstanding PRC demands known as the “three no’s”: no independence for Taiwan, no arrangements short of independence that would grant it equal status with the PRC (no “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”), and no de-facto recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
For the loquacious American President, these may have been just words, but to the Asians who heard them they carried considerable weight. In the past, U.S. officials had always refused publicly to express any opinion on the final outlines of a cross-strait agreement, saying only that it should be arrived at peacefully and by mutual consent. Now an American President was echoing China’s leaders in explicitly ruling out a number of possibilities for Taiwan, and doing so in the traditional role of a supplicant to the Middle Kingdom.
This major blunder set in motion the cycle of escalating tensions over Taiwan in the period leading up to the March election. As the journalist James Mann reported, China “promptly called upon Taiwan to ‘face reality’ ”—i.e., take into account the newly unsympathetic position of the U.S.—“and enter into talks for reunification with China.” To this the Taiwanese responded with a well-calibrated show of defiance—in July 1999, Lee Teng-hui suggested that discussions across the Taiwan Strait should henceforth be conducted on a “special state-to-state” basis. This demand for respect elicited from Beijing a verbal ferocity unusual even by Chinese standards. Returning to the rhetoric of the Mao era, China’s leaders now began to speak once again of “liberating” the island and to warn, in the words of Vice Premier Qian Qichen, that “Taiwan independence can only mean war.” Weeks before the election, Beijing added a new threat: a refusal on Taiwan’s part to come to terms, and soon, might in itself be justification for an attack. Thus did American efforts to appease and reassure China end up by increasing the risk of war.
In the aftermath of the elections, which if anything have exacerbated the underlying contradictions in U.S. policy, we appear to face three options for dealing with the Taiwan question.
The first and in certain respects the most appealing option is somehow to restore the status quo. “A showdown over Taiwan is in no one’s interest,” reasoned the New York Times as the PRC stepped up its military pressure in the weeks before the March 18 election. Gently suggesting to the Chinese that they find a more “productive” approach to advancing their goal of reunification, the Times then chided Taiwan to avoid “provocative suggestions that its leaders were preparing for independence,” and to forgo appeals to the U.S. for sophisticated new defensive weapons. The parties, concluded the Times, should be coaxed back into negotiations that might “someday” make it “possible to work out a political arrangement that both mainlanders and Taiwanese find acceptable.”
The second option is one that few analysts advocate in polite company, but that is likely to gain support if tensions continue to mount, as they almost certainly will. It is to cut Taiwan loose. One way or another, the reasoning here goes, mainland China, a country in which we already have huge economic and strategic stakes, will emerge as the preponderant Asian power. As for Taiwan, it is largely an irritant to the U.S.-PRC relationship, its democracy a nuisance at best and at worst a real danger. The United States must therefore do what it can to get Taiwan’s leaders to stifle talk of independence, accept the inevitability of unification, and make the best deal they can with the mainland while the balance of forces is still more or less in their favor. If, however, the Taiwanese insist on behaving irresponsibly, the United States should stand aside and wash its hands. Regrettable as a coerced reunification with the mainland might be, it would clear the way for better and more stable long-term relations between the U.S. and the PRC—an outcome certainly preferable to war.
Then there is the third option, equal and opposite to the second, which is to recognize Taiwan as an independent state. Proponents of this course of action point to the questionable legitimacy of Beijing’s claims to the island. Taiwan has never been under the control of the Communist regime, nor is it an ancient part of mainland Chinese civilization; it is, rather, a fairly recent acquisition and, ironically, a product of China’s own past history of imperial expansion.
But, in this scenario, the main virtue of a Taiwanese declaration of independence, aside from the benefit it would bring to the Taiwanese people, is the blow it would deal to the Beijing regime. If the Chinese Communist party let Taiwan go without a fight, it might never recover from the loss of face. If it fought, and lost, it might anyway end up being driven from power, much as Argentina’s military dictators were when they foolishly tried to take the Falkland Islands from Great Britain. As for its prospects of winning such a fight, most analysts believe the PRC now lacks the capacity to invade Taiwan outright (as opposed to attacking it from the air with missiles and aircraft). Since they also expect China’s military power to grow with time, it makes sense to go for independence sooner rather than later.
Each of these three options presents real problems. The trouble with the first is that while the Taiwanese might be willing to enter into open-ended negotiations, the Chinese have now made it clear that they are not. With their recent demands for a quick settlement, Jiang Zemin and his colleagues appear to have painted themselves into a corner; if they cannot “deliver” Taiwan soon, they will find themselves under attack from those who favor an even tougher stance.
In any case, what the “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along?” school of analysis ignores is that, in the real world, threats and belligerence serve a useful function. Not only does the PRC’s current leadership stand to gain at home by periodically inflaming the Taiwan issue, but to the extent that aggressive tactics succeed in intimidating the Taiwanese and the Americans, they also serve China’s long-term international strategy. Accommodating gestures of the kind urged by the New York Times are therefore unlikely to be reciprocated: China wants and needs to keep the pot boiling.
Besides, shoring up the diplomatic status quo will not freeze the current balance of military capabilities. Especially if the United States refrains from selling sophisticated arms to Taiwan, that balance would shift quickly in the mainland’s favor. Deferring the Taiwan question may therefore simply increase the odds that a militarily stronger PRC will one day try to resolve it, once and for all, through the use of overwhelming force.
As for cutting Taiwan loose (the second option), it is subject to criticism on both moral and strategic grounds. Despite the nervous handwringing of American China-watchers, there is no reason to believe that the Taiwanese people are reckless and irresponsible. To the contrary, the Taiwanese have made clear through their electoral choices that, while they are averse to reunification with an authoritarian China, and strongly resolved to resist the PRC’s efforts to bully them, they do not favor a dangerous rush toward independence.
This is a measured, reasonable posture, worthy of our support. Whatever considerations led to America’s initial separation from the island in the 1970’s, to consign it now to the tender mercies of the mainland would be a disgrace. Taiwan has, after all, remade itself into precisely the kind of society that Americans say they favor and wish to promote around the world. To abandon a fellow democracy in hopes of commercial or geopolitical gain, or even out of a well-intentioned wish to preserve the peace, would starkly violate American principles.
Strategically, our China experts reassure us that how the PRC behaves on the Taiwan issue has no implications for its actions elsewhere, and that once it achieves its goal of reunification it will have no further wish to expand its zone of control. But if the PRC does succeed in forcing Taiwan back into the fold, the inevitable conclusion will be that violence and threats of violence work, and that when push comes to shove the Americans back down. Others in Asia (and not only in Asia) will no doubt reach similar judgments, and recalibrate their diplomatic and defense policies accordingly. To expect a Chinese victory over Taiwan to reduce the PRC’s appetite for regional dominance, or to leave America’s Asian alliances unscathed, is to indulge in wishful thinking of the most dangerous kind.
But this also suggests why a declaration of independence—the third option—is inadvisable. True, a successful Taiwanese break might bring down the Beijing regime. But it might also wind up giving it a new lease on life, plus a new focus for the pent-up energies and frustrations of its subjects. Nor can the full extent of Beijing’s military response to such a move be anticipated with any assurance. The notion, entertained by some, that feelings of ethnic solidarity would restrain Beijing from doing things (including using nuclear weapons) that could kill large numbers of Taiwanese civilians overlooks the bloody history of the Chinese civil war. The Taiwanese people may ultimately decide that they are willing to take such a chance, but it would be wrong for the United States to encourage them in this direction, at least until we were certain of our own willingness to do whatever might be necessary to back them up.
The weaknesses of these three options suggest the need for an alternative that can undo some of the damage done by the current administration. The primary objective of our policy must be to repair the frayed fabric of deterrence—deterrence, that is, of mainland China. Under the terms of such a policy, the United States would make it clear not only that it strongly favors a mutually acceptable resolution to the Taiwan issue, if and when one can be found, but that it will not accept, under any circumstances, an outcome imposed by force.
A proper China policy must be one of both words and deeds. In articulating it, we would remind the Chinese that the United States has a history of getting involved in conflicts even when it has wished to avoid them. At the beginning of 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson strongly implied that the Korean peninsula lay outside the perimeter of American interests; six months later, when North Korea attacked the South, the United States came quickly to the latter’s defense. In the event of a PRC strike on Taiwan, what happened in Korea could happen again, shattering relations for a generation. In its aftermath, the United States would assuredly deny China access to markets, capital, and technology, and press its friends and allies to follow suit. China’s hopes for continued economic progress would be dashed, increasing the likelihood of domestic political instability.
Other costs should be pointed out as well. Although most Asian governments claim to accept the notion that the Taiwan issue is a purely internal Chinese matter, a bloody cross-strait conflict would send a shiver of dread throughout the region. PRC willingness to use massive force to achieve its ambitions would encourage the proliferation of missiles, missile defenses, and weapons of mass destruction, virtually all of which would be directed toward China itself. And it would drive other countries, including some that are presently non-aligned, into defensive coalitions with one another and with the United States. China’s leaders sometimes complain that they are being encircled by a ring of hostile powers; they should—quietly—be made to understand that, if they attack Taiwan, they will be encircled, and they will have only themselves to blame.
Of course, to be effective, all such words about future consequences need to be accompanied by present actions—actions, that is, in aid of Taiwan. The island’s most pressing (though by no means its only) requirement is a credible defense against the threat of mass conventional missile attacks. It has already bought from us Patriot missiles similar to those we used, with very limited success, during the Gulf war. But with China’s rocket forces already large and growing fast, Taiwan needs additional capabilities quickly.
Objections to stepped-up U.S. assistance are legion. Some observers worry openly that we will “start an arms race,” as if an arms race were not already under way, and as if Taiwan were not in danger of losing it. Or it is said (for instance by David Shambaugh in the Times) that Taiwan cannot even absorb the weapons we have sold to it, let alone still newer ones, since the island’s military “lacks spare parts and its forces are often inadequately trained.” But this, too, by any rational calculus, is an argument for more and different kinds of assistance, not less.
Underlying these objections is a deeper fear. Just as in the darkest days of the cold war with the Soviet Union, some are so impressed with China’s enormous size and its grim determination to have its way that they are led to paint it as an irresistible force. In the face of Chinese power, they argue, not opposition but accommodation is the best and certainly the safest course. After all, little Taiwan, as one former Clinton administration official has put it, “cannot, in the long run, hope to win [an arms race] against a vastly larger and equally dynamic society.”
That mainland China is “vastly larger” than Taiwan is undeniable. That its society will prove to be “equally dynamic” one can only hope, for the sake of its own people’s future. But its political system is something else again. Only defeatists need assume that this system is destined to endure forever—and yet that is precisely the assumption on which proposals for preemptive appeasement are based. Rather, the best hope for real peace lies in the eventual transformation of the PRC along lines already laid down by its island neighbor.
By continuing to survive and to thrive, Taiwan may speed the day when change comes to the mainland. But it is only with our help that a democratic Taiwan can outlast the corrupt and moribund regime that now threatens daily to destroy it.