January 11, 2000

January 11, 2000 | Commentary on Asia

Dealing with the China-Taiwan puzzle

As the guarantor of regional security in Asia, the United States should be paying closer attention to the military buildup and strident anti-Taiwan rhetoric of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Other nations may be able to dismiss these threats as just another round of saber rattling, but if the troubled situation in the Taiwan Strait worsens, it will likely require a U.S. military response.

The rising tensions stand in direct contrast to the positive domestic changes occurring both in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Taiwan will hold its second presidential election in March - one of a number of democratic changes that have occurred during the past few years. Politically free and increasingly affluent, the island republic not only survived the Asian financial crisis but, unlike some of its neighbors, is thriving. Its investments in China total $40 billion, and cross-Strait trade between the two is $24 billion per year - perhaps $40 billion when goods passing through Hong Kong destined for the United States are included. Meanwhile, economic reforms in China are producing a nascent middle class. Millions of mainlanders are forming private businesses and fueling a competitive job market. People are able to chose where they wish to live, whether to buy homes, and even which mortgage lenders to use. Chinese department stores carry competitively priced goods in abundance, and state-owned stores must compete in the marketplace.

True, freedom of the press is absent, and people are not yet free to worship, but a robust publishing industry - much of it supported by Western-style advertising - is flourishing. Ever-growing numbers of Chinese are making more and more personal choices. Eventually, they will insist that if they are allowed to make informed choices in the marketplace, they should be permitted to make similar choices in the political arena.

All this demonstrates there is ample reason for the United States to promote trade and commerce with China. Unfortunately, these positive trends must be balanced against the PRC's well-documented military buildup along the Taiwan Strait. Especially troubling is Beijing's repeated refusal to reject the use of force in any future attempts to resolve the longstanding reunification issue.

How can the United States help defuse this potential crisis? Primarily by voicing its traditional strong support of Taiwan and by resisting calls that it pressure Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC. In addition, the United States must avoid mediating between the governments of democratic Taiwan and authoritarian China. The only precondition Washington should set for any such talks is that the use of force be repudiated by both sides. Policy-makers here should remind the PRC that the Taiwan Relations Act - overwhelmingly passed by Congress in 1979 - served all sides well until President Clinton imprudently departed from it in June 1998. That's when the president publicly stated his opposition to Taiwan's participation in international organizations where formal nationhood is a requirement. He also opposed independence for Taiwan and renounced a "two-China" policy, implying the only legitimate Chinese government resided in Beijing. As far as many Asian observers were concerned, Washington had suddenly abandoned its long-held position of official neutrality in regard to China's claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. America was perceived as siding with China in the often-tense dispute.

One result of this apparent shift has been the introduction in Congress of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. This legislation would take democracy in Taiwan and the changing security situation in Asia into account and enable America to provide enhanced defense equipment (including access to theater missile defense) to the island republic.

In view of President Clinton's departure from established - and legal - precedent in Asia, Chinese leaders may be confused about how the United States would respond to overt military action aimed at Taiwan. The administration should make clear to the PRC that intimidating acts such as missile firings, embargoes or blockades will not be tolerated by the United States.

The degree of the U.S. response to any such force need not be specified. In military planning, it is foolhardy to announce one's intentions in advance. But the PRC should recall the U.S. response to its belligerence during Taiwan's March 1996 presidential election, when China test-fired missiles a mere 20 miles off the island republic's coast and issued warlike threats. America promptly dispatched two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the Strait.

Some U.S. commentators argue for "strategic clarity" toward China, while others press for "strategic ambiguity." Still others, infatuated by the ever-present mirage of billions of dollars in sales to China, would accommodate Beijing by abandoning Taiwan.

To remain true to our history and our ideals, however, Americans cannot abandon a democratic nation to military coercion or aggression. American presidents, Republican or Democrat, must maintain the TRA's pledge: "We will regard any attempt to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycott or embargo, as a threat to the peace . . . and a matter of grave concern to the United States."

America's response should be twofold. On trade, the United States should work to include the PRC and Taiwan as members in the World Trade Organization. This will accelerate tangible reforms on the mainland and promote further democratization. At the same time, America should stress its commitment to the principle that force cannot be tolerated to resolve differences between Taiwan and the China. "Strategic ambiguity" - indeed, any ambiguity - in U.S. foreign policy toward Asia can only make a bad situation worse.

About the Author

Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Originally published in The Washington Times (01/11/00)