October 16, 2003

October 16, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Taiwan's Independent Streak

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's recent repudiation of the "one China" concept is sure to break a lot of china in the Bush administration. In an interview with John Pomfret of the Washington Post, published in The Asian Wall Street Journal on Oct. 7, "Chen Declares Taiwan Will Walk 'Own Road,'1 " he described the concept as "abnormal thinking that should not exist." And on Friday President Chen told a National Day reception in Taiwan that Beijing would have to renounce the concept before it could open the "door to peace."

Those comments caused gastric distress in the Bush administration, especially as they came only a week after President Chen's call for the island to adopt a new constitution, and only a few months after he floated ideas for various public referenda to assert Taiwan's separateness from China. These concerns were only slightly mollified by a statement from the presidential office in Taipei last week, insisting that President Chen had been misquoted elsewhere in the interview, when he was reported as saying that Taiwan "would not bow to U.S. pressure" on the issue of the constitution or referenda.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Oval Office passed the word that U.S. President George W. Bush didn't want a China inbox to distract him from other foreign-policy problems. Since then, avoiding any complications with Beijing has been a major goal of Washington's diplomatic bureaucracy.

But now a China inbox may be unavoidable, and I confess that I am fully behind President Chen's new assertiveness on the one China issue. For years, I have written that one China is a useful formula as long as everyone understands that it doesn't mean Beijing has sovereignty over Taiwan. In American diplomatic parlance, one China merely means the U.S. only recognizes one Chinese government at a time. But recently, the subtlety of the formula seems to have confused Washington's foreign-policy bureaucracy. Now, even senior administration officials seem to erroneously believe that one China encompasses Taiwan.

By opposing the idea of Taiwan independence, some Bush administration officials are slipping into the dangerous fallacy of accepting that Taiwan is part of China. As former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it in 1976, "if Taiwan is recognized by us as part of China, then it may become irresistible to them, our saying we want a peaceful solution has no force, it is Chinese territory, what are we going to do about it?"

This is exactly the point I made to President Chen in a meeting in August when I urged him not to back down from his August 2002 declaration that "there are two nations, the People's Republic of China on that side and the Republic of China on this side, one side, one nation." I warned him that Beijing's constant drumbeat of one China is eroding the nuance of the American one-Chinese-government-at-a-time policy. He listened intently and responded that he had indeed been firm on Taiwan's separate identity from China. Indeed President Chen realizes only too well that one China is drowning Taiwan, and must be debunked.

But the bureaucracy in Washington wants to avoid another crisis. And in Taiwan's case, that means taking the path of least resistance. Since China claims that independence for Taiwan would lead to war, therefore anything Taiwan does to assert the legitimacy of its democratic system against China's assaults is seen as a crisis. It's just too complicated to confront China, so why not beat up on Taiwan instead.

If all this sounds familiar, that's because it's reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's claim before the Gulf War that Kuwait was Iraq's 19th province. That was the claim which then U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad April Glaspie famously told Saddam in July 1990 the U.S. "takes no position" on -- only a week before the invasion of Kuwait.

That was no way to treat the oil-rich sheikdom of Kuwait then, and it is no way to treat the thriving and prosperous democracy of Taiwan now. Taiwan's president has been one of America's staunchest supporters in the Iraq conflict, the war on terror and Washington's efforts to isolate North Korea. Under President Chen, Taiwan donated over $100 million to the war on terror, to Afghan reconstruction and to relief for the victims of Sept. 11.

Taiwan is also one of America's most trusted allies in Asia. Throughout the 1990s, the island was the top purchaser of U.S. defense equipment, Washington has a major intelligence presence on the island and there are several billion dollars worth of defense systems in the pipeline for Taiwan that seem -- to the unaided eye -- designed to make Taiwan a key link in a global missile-defense chain. Taiwan has also offered aid in rebuilding Iraq, but reportedly has been given the cold shoulder by Washington for fear of offending Beijing. However since China has opposed every U.S. resolution on Iraq since last November, it's difficult to see what the downside to accepting such generosity would be.

Before overreacting to President Chen's stance, Washington policy makers should consider three things. First, that U.S. policy has always been to support a free and democratic people against the threats of a dictatorship. Second, that Taiwan -- for all the historical confusion about its status -- is an independent country as far as U.S. law is concerned. And third, that President Chen's comments are neither new nor a departure from the policies of Taiwan's previous president.

Instead there are already rumblings among the foreign-policy bureaucracy in the Bush administration that Taiwan has to be reined in and that Beijing must be mollified. That would be a mistake.

The Bush administration should return to the basics of America's policy toward Taiwan. When the U.S. established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979 and broke relations with Taiwan, the U.S. Congress passed special legislation mandating that "whenever the laws of the U.S. refer or relate to foreign countries, nations, states, governments, or similar entities, such terms shall include and such laws shall apply with respect to Taiwan." In other words, Taiwan is already an independent country as far as U.S. domestic law is concerned.

No American president has ever accepted China's claims to Taiwan. Rather, the U.S. has been rather consistent in its defense of the Taiwanese people's freedom to make their own decisions. In 1982, U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared it was Washington's long-standing policy that the U.S. "will not prejudice the free choice of, or put pressure on, the people of Taiwan" in resolving their differences with China. This policy was reiterated by U.S. President Bill Clinton, who on February 24, 2000, in response to China's threats of war, declared, "We'll continue to reject the use of force as a means to resolve the Taiwan question." He added that, "We'll also continue to make absolutely clear that the issues between Beijing and Taiwan must be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan."

The U.S. maintains an embassy in everything but name in Taipei. It has a consular section, a political section, a trade office and defense-sales section. It flies the American flag, and all its personnel have U.S. State Department e-mail addresses. Australia, Canada, Japan, the European Union, and every other major nation maintain similar ties with Taiwan.

In fact, Taiwan's separate national identity from China is so ingrained in Washington's official consciousness that senior American officials in indiscrete moments often refer to Taiwan as a "country." In an apparent Freudian slip, President Bush even referred to Taiwan as "the Republic of Taiwan," during a trade speech last year.

All that should make it inconceivable for the U.S. to consider bowing to the threats of the earth's largest dictatorship that is trying to cow the people of Asia's most dynamic democracy into denying the legitimacy of their government.

During the Cold War, when the U.S. and China were true strategic partners against Soviet expansionism, American diplomats crafted nuanced formula to thread the needle between the demands of Beijing's rulers and the aspirations of Taiwan's people. The Soviets are long gone and there is now little need to continue to humor Beijing's territorial aspirations. Yet, people in Taiwan are becoming alarmed by the inattention of some in the Bush administration to the importance of nuances over the island's status, and especially their hints that the U.S. is "against" Taiwanese independence as opposed to simply "not supporting" it. No wonder Taiwan's leaders now feel the need to shout from the rooftops that their government, nation and constitution are legitimate. When President Chen asserts that Taiwan is a country, separate from the People's Republic of China, he is simply stating a fact.

John Tkacik is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

Appeared in The Wall Street Journal