January 8, 2004

January 8, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Will President Bush's Stance on Taiwan Undermine Democracy in East Asia?

Q: Will President Bush's stance on Taiwan undermine democracy in East Asia?

Yes: It will spur Beijing's war party and dampen the hopes of democracy movements in Burma and Cambodia.


It is a critical failing in Western democracies that their leaders assume only good intentions from dictators. This was true in Munich in 1938. Secretary of State Dean Acheson assumed it in 1950 when he drew the U.S. defense perimeter in the Western Pacific far removed from the Asian mainland. It was true in 1990 when the United States encouraged Kuwait to "negotiate" with Saddam Hussein.

And it was true in Washington early last December when President George W. Bush made the amiable observation to visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that China and the United States were "partners in diplomacy working to meet the dangers of the 21st century." Effusive blather is harmless in such diplomatic settings. But just a little later, Bush moved from hospitable puffery to a serious mistake. At an Oval Office photo-op with the Chinese premier on Dec. 9, 2003, Bush ignored weeks of Chinese threats of war against Taiwan sharply to rebuke the democratically elected president of the island nation for allegedly making "comments and actions [that] indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally that change the status quo, which we oppose." Bush then allowed the Chinese premier to announce that the U.S. president "reiterated ... opposition to Taiwan independence." It was a comment that caused shocked intakes of breath across Asia and universally was interpreted as a swipe at Taiwan.

For more than five decades the United States studiously has avoided recognition of China's claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. The reasoning of the U.S. State Department, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told aides 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?" To which Arthur Hummel, then assistant secretary and later ambassador to Beijing responded, "Down the road, perhaps the only solution would be an independent Taiwan."

Kissinger was prescient. According to CNN's Willy Lam, top Beijing politburo members are said to see Bush's new "opposition to Taiwan independence" as the final U.S. admission that China has sovereignty over Taiwan and to gloat that if "we were to respond militarily, the U.S. can't raise objections, let alone interfere."

What now is seen in Beijing as a major communist diplomatic victory is pooh-poohed by Bush administration aides as "less than meets the eye." In Taiwan it is perceived as a sign Taiwan must stand up in defense of its own democracy because U.S. support is wavering. Unless the Bush administration steps back, this slap at democratic Taiwan will have given a false signal to a dangerous aggressor and undermined confidence in our leadership among the democracies of the Asia-Pacific region.

Bellicose threats obviously scare an overextended United States. On Nov. 21, 2003, the Chinese premier warned the Washington Post that "the Chinese people will pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland." The following week, a senior Chinese general declared that, in order to liberate Taiwan, China was prepared to lose the 2008 Olympics, as well as much of China's foreign direct investment, and suffer a downgrade in relations "with certain countries." Other costs China is willing to bear are the "loss of personnel and property" along its prosperous southeastern coast, a temporary economic stagnation or even contraction and "necessary sacrifices" of troops. These are hardly the words of a "partner in diplomacy."

Bush is not in an ideal position. He faces the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear-armed North Korea that threatens to "transfer" its arms to rogue states and he still has a war against terror on his hands. The Chinese assume, perhaps correctly, that Bush cannot afford to antagonize them, too. But it is ill-advised to give the Chinese an engraved invitation to have their way in East Asia while the United States is busy elsewhere. Bush therefore hopes to preserve the status quo.

Just what is the status quo? In a nutshell, it is the incongruous preservation of the Taipei government's long-disdained claim to be sovereign over China. Yes, under its current constitution little Taiwan owns big China. This absurdity stems from Chiang Kai-shek's establishment of a nationalist Chinese government-in-exile on Taiwan after he was defeated by the Communists in 1949. In fact, Taiwan hasn't been ruled by Beijing since the Chinese emperor transferred the island to Japan in 1895 after a nasty little war in Manchuria. It was a Japanese imperial colony for 50 years. At the end of World War II, the Japanese emperor renounced "all right, title and claim" to Taiwan and refrained from suggesting to whom Taiwan thereafter belonged, if anyone. Taiwan has been governed quite nicely for more than 100 years without any assistance from China.

When a native Taiwanese (who speaks Japanese far better than Chinese) assumed the presidency of Taiwan in 1988, a rapid process of democratization swept the island. So ingrained is this new identity in Taiwan that a poll taken in mid-December 2003 showed most Taiwanese don't consider themselves Chinese at all, and few think of themselves as Chinese only.

Gigantic China is not threatened by Taiwan; far from it. Prosperous little Taiwan has invested more than $100 billion in China, and this investment has helped power China's prodigious economic growth. Yet China claims Taiwan much the same as Saddam Hussein claimed Kuwait as Iraq's 19th province in 1990.

Beijing's lust for Taiwan isn't for wealth or national security. The real reason is that Taiwan's democracy is a symbolic affront to the legitimacy of China's communist government. Beijing's leaders insist they are sovereign on Taiwan to demonstrate the superiority of socialism over what might be seen as the island's "Chinese democracy." A little democracy is okay in China so long as everyone understands it is subservient to communism in Beijing. Hong Kong now is under Beijing's control; so, too, must Taiwan be.

If Taiwan threatens to dump the fiction that it is part of China, then China says it will go to war. With so many other emergencies on his hands, Bush understandably wants to keep a lid on this simmering crisis. So rather than warn China not to be aggressive, Bush warned the Taiwan president not to change the status quo.

Taiwan's current president, Chen Shui-bian, understands the status quo. In 2000 he told China he would forswear any move to "independence" under the condition that China "makes no move to attack Taiwan." But ever since, China has built up an invasion force, rapidly increased its missile deployments against the island and kept up a relentless campaign to isolate democratic Taiwan in the international community. This is the status quo Chen wants to change. But Chen suggests a referendum against China's deployment of 500 ballistic missiles targeted on his island democracy, and China cries for war. Bush then publicly sides with Beijing. Apparently, it is acceptable for China to change the status quo by deploying 75 new missiles a year against Taiwan but not for Taiwan to protest them.

Bush's Asia advisers are incensed that the Taiwan president's referendum is a "provocative" political ploy in the run-up to presidential elections next March 20. What is genuinely provocative is China's missile threat against Taiwan. In 1995 and again in 1996 Chinese missile tests closed the Taiwan Strait, one of the world's busiest sea lanes, for weeks. And China threatens to do so again.

It is unsettling throughout Asia that the United States would be seen siding with a belligerent communist dictatorship against any democracy. But Taiwan isn't just any democracy. It is one of America's staunchest allies. It is America's 10th-largest export market and the world's 17th-largest economy (on par with Russia). Taiwan has Asia's fifth-largest military. It has been a massive purchaser of U.S. defense services and equipment, even bigger than Saudi Arabia or Israel. And with the approval of long-range radar systems for Taiwan's army, the island potentially will be a vital link in America's global missile-defense architecture.

Yet somehow, Bush has been persuaded that democratic Taiwan's interests can be sacrificed to the warlike threats of Communist China. In November 2003, Bush declared that the "global expansion of democracy" and the "willingness of free nations ... to restrain aggression and evil by force" are pillars of his foreign policy. Yet his belittlement of Taiwan's democracy - on demand from China's dictatorship - might lead one to think he doesn't read his own speeches.

During the Christmas recess, congressional leaders from the principled right and principled left quietly are conveying their alarm at the administration's tilt toward Beijing. They are getting "mortified" calls from Burmese and Cambodian democracy movements that worry that if the United States "is tilting to appease China" about Taiwan, then what hope do they have if Beijing supports brother dictatorships in Asia? As China uses U.S. distractions to leverage its economic clout in Southeast Asia into political influence, China's neighbors in the region are worried that a new great power is materializing on their doorsteps. At some point they may have to choose between China and the United States. Increasingly, Taiwan looks to them like Czechoslovakia did in 1938: a democracy with no friends in the West. And soon, China's democratic neighbors will see little to be gained from resisting Chinese influence in favor of America. This is exactly what China wants. The message China is getting is that the United States is willing to sacrifice Taiwan if the alternative is a war with China.

Unless the Bush administration reverses this unseemly policy by declaring China the major cause of cross-Strait tensions, by publicly confirming a commitment to "do what it takes" to help defend Taiwan and affirming Ronald Reagan's stance against China's claims to sovereignty over Taiwan, this will prove a disaster for democracy in Asia. Two years from now, this tilt toward Beijing will be seen as the beginning of a major strategic blunder. It will not have dampened, but only fed, China's belligerence and it will have undermined the most crucial asset of U.S. foreign policy - the soundness of its commitment to democracy.

John Tkacik is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

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

Appeared in Insight on the News