March 23, 2000

March 23, 2000 | Commentary on Asia

A Simple Question

It sounds like something you'd hear at a diplomat's tea party-one China or two?

A simple question, but one the United States must answer carefully. The lives of Americans-and the future of a friend and ally-could depend on it.

Just before Taiwan's recent presidential election, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warned the people of Taiwan to steer clear of pro-independence candidates, "Otherwise I'm afraid you won't get another opportunity to regret." And a few weeks before that, China warned that it would use military force against Taiwan if the island republic delays reunification talks with the mainland-and even threatened to fire nuclear missiles at the United States if we interfere.

The threats may have been mere bluster designed to influence Taiwan's elections and to scare the winner, who turned out to be the most pro-independence candidate, into reunification talks on Beijing's terms. Then again, maybe not. "China is neither Iraq nor Yugoslavia but a very special country," said a recent article in one state-owned Chinese newspaper, hinting to the United States that Beijing would be a tougher military opponent than Baghdad or Belgrade.

No doubt it would. But that doesn't justify China's threats against Taiwan. Nor should it affect longstanding U.S. policy, which calls for the United States to provide for the defense of Taiwan.

The threat of such an attack has existed ever since the communists overran mainland China in 1949 and the nationalists fled to what became known as Taiwan, an island about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined. For the next 30 years, the United States recognized only one Chinese government, in Taipei. But in 1979, President Jimmy Carter derecognized Taiwan.

Since then, U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan has been delicate. We no longer recognize Taipei's claim to be the government of all of China, nor do we accept Beijing's contention that Taiwan is merely a "renegade province."

All was well, or at least tolerable, until two years ago when President Clinton visited Shanghai and delivered a speech that muddied three decades of finely calibrated U.S.-Asia policy. "We don't support independence for Taiwan, or two Chinas, or one Taiwan-one China," he said, echoing Beijing's party line. "And we don't believe that Taiwan should be a member of any international organization for which statehood is a requirement."

President Clinton's words so radically tilted U.S. policy in favor of China that Beijing cited them in a recent policy paper expanding the conditions under which it would invade Taiwan. "China senses weakness in Washington and will keep pushing as long as the president continues to play their game," my colleague Stephen Yates, an expert on China, explained.

The appeasement of China must stop. President Clinton must publicly reassure Taiwan that it has our support, that we will continue to send defensive arms, and that Washington does not endorse China's view on Taiwan sovereignty.

The good news is that not everyone in Washington is willing to abandon our democratic allies in Taiwan. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted 341-70 to strengthen the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the United States to help Taiwan defend itself. But President Clinton plans to veto the bill, further jeopardizing the future of Taiwan's 22 million citizens.

As for the question of one China or two, I'm not suggesting that we overturn U.S. policy. But I will say this: We've dealt before with two Germanys, two Koreas and even two Vietnams, and each time we aligned ourselves with the right side. Let's not ruin our record.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

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