March 8, 1996

March 8, 1996 | Commentary on Asia

ED030896: Drifting Toward a Taiwan Crisis

In a blatant show of intimidation, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is now firing missiles at targets just miles from Taiwan's largest cities.

The missiles are intended to undermine the Republic of China on Taiwan's democratic government -- which will hold its first-ever presidential election on March 23.

And why shouldn't the PRC feel perfectly free to bully one of America's best friends in Asia and its 7th-largest trading partner? After all, the Clinton administration has done little to give China pause as to the consequences of such acts.

In fact, instead of clearly spelling out what America's response would be if the communist Chinese attack Taiwan -- thus discouraging such aggressive acts -- the blundering Clinton foreign policy team has lent encouragement to the Chinese. For example, an unnamed State Department official told U.S. News & World Report last October that U.S. military action was unlikely. "We would not be in a position to react with force," the official was quoted as saying. "We would not elect to do that, I'm sure," he added.

Certainly not. Of course, a 12-year-old could figure out that even if this were true -- which it shouldn't be -- you don't go telling a potential adversary about it.

The Clinton administration not only shouldn't be saying such things, this should not be its policy either. The administration should make clear to China that the United States will not tolerate an attack on Taiwan, period. Nor should it rule out the use of force if the Chinese decide on such a reckless course. In fact, instead of standing by while the PRC lobs missiles in Taiwan's direction, the United States should be holding naval exercises in the region: to send a message of our own. Instead, when the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz made a run through the Taiwan Strait in December, administration officials -- who could have just kept their mouths shut! -- were quick to assure all parties that the move was due to inclement weather in the Pacific.

By failing to tell China's leaders where America stands, the Clinton administration is risking a clash that could enslave the citizens of Free China, place every U.S. ally in Asia at risk, and wipe out what little confidence our Asian allies might still have in our reliability in a crisis.

Before it's too late, President Clinton must make sure Beijing understands that America feels a moral obligation to defend Taiwan, and that it will do so, come what may.

After all, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act -- U.S. law -- states that America will regard any attack on Taiwan as "a threat to peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States." The president should reaffirm that it will regard violations of Taiwan's rights as a threat to U.S. security and will act accordingly. He should tell China it could face not only severe economic sanctions -- ranging from removal of most-favored-nation trade status to a full U.S. economic embargo -- but also the full military might of the United States.

Such steps should be taken now, before the real shooting starts. After it starts, America can only lose. Even if a PRC-initiated attack on Taiwan didn't spread any further -- and there's no guarantee that it wouldn't -- China would have successfully challenged America's ability to protect its allies. Other challenges would follow, in Asia and elsewhere.

Of course, the reason China is threatening to come to blows is that it's scared of tiny Taiwan. Ever since ROC President Lee Teng-hui's private visit to the United States last June -- to speak at a class reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University -- China has been rattling its saber. Chinese amphibious and airborne military assault exercises involving 20,000 troops, 40 ships and 100 aircraft -- designed to simulate an invasion of Taiwan -- preceded the island's legislative elections last December, and even larger maneuvers are underway now. China fears that Taiwan will be seen as a model for political reform on the mainland, and is resentful of Taiwan's growing economic prosperity, based on a Western-style free market.

Most portentous of all, the PRC may be preparing for a more decisive confrontation with Taiwan in the future. In a speech Jan. 30, Premiere Li Peng said that "During the period [1996-2000] ... settling the Taiwan issue will be prominently put in front of all Chinese people." Reports out of Hong Kong in mid-January stated that "the important role to be played by the Army in taking back Taiwan," was stressed at a December meeting of the policy-setting Central Military Commission, attended by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

In the face of such challenges, President Clinton so far has chosen to hide his head in the sand. This makes America appear weak, not just to China, but to Taiwan and our other Asian allies as well. If America doesn't even have the nerve to talk tough to China before a crisis erupts, why should anyone believe we would defend Taiwan with force in the event of an attack?

There need not be a military crisis over Taiwan. All it would take to insure that it doesn't come would be some tough talk and a little saber rattling of our own.

What's so hard about that?

Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute. He will lead a Heritage Foundation observation team at Taiwan's March 23rd presidential election.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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