October 29, 2004

October 29, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Kung Pao Taiwan

For American diplomacy to be successful, it must reflect the values of the American people and all who aspire to freedom throughout the world. President George H. W. Bush learned this the hard way with his "Chicken Kiev" speech in the Ukraine 13 years ago, and Secretary of State Colin Powell may be finding it out now with Taiwan.

On Aug. 1, 1991, President Bush arrived in the crisis-wracked Soviet city of Kiev as tens of thousands of Ukrainians waved signs reading "The Evil Empire Lives" and "53 million Ukrainians demand independence." Long-oppressed peoples in the Baltics, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus demanded independence from Moscow, and Gorbachev tried to assuage them with a "Union Treaty" granting greater autonomy.

The elder Bush feared the independence sentiments that threatened the Soviet Union's stability. When he addressed the Ukrainian parliament that day, he cautioned that "freedom is not the same as independence; Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism."

Ukrainians from Kiev to Chicago were outraged. President Bush's words strayed so wildly from America's traditional support for freedom in the Soviet Union's "captive nations" that columnist William Safire dubbed them the "Chicken Kiev" speech. The name stuck.

On Oct. 25, 2004, Secretary of State Powell made what might be called his "Kung Pao Taiwan" speech in a misguided - and ultimately unsuccessful - attempt to curry favor with his hosts in Beijing.

Perhaps Powell hoped to encourage Taiwan's people to forswear "independence" from Communist China - even though they quietly seek to prevent a "far-off despotism" from replacing their local democracy. Quite a difference.

Sitting in Beijing's China World Hotel, speaking first to Hong Kong's Phoenix Television and then to Mike Chinoy of CNN, Secretary Powell delivered a vision for relations between Taiwan and China. On Phoenix TV, he urged that "both sides should...move forward toward that day when we will see a peaceful unification." In his interview with Mike Chinoy, Powell said, "we [presumably the United States, not he and the Chinese foreign minister] want to see both sides not take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a reunification that all parties are seeking."

Whether Powell was prevaricating or being disingenuous - or had been badly briefed about Taiwan - is unclear. But it is a fact that Taiwan emphatically does not seek eventual unification. Indeed, Taiwan's antipathy to unification has grown dramatically following the unhappy reunion of Hong Kong's incipient democracy with established Chinese despotism.

Although the State Department spokesman insisted in Washington that U.S. policy had not changed - and though the American proto-ambassador in Taipei, Mr. Douglas Paal, insisted to his Taiwanese counterparts that Powell really meant "resolution," not "reunification" - there was no attempt to rectify another of Powell's gross misstatements.

Powell added insult to injury when he averred to his Hong Kong interviewer that "there is only one China," that "Taiwan is not independent," and that "it does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy."

Unless Powell seeks to change policy, then he was wrong again. The United States has never taken the position that Taiwan does not "enjoy sovereignty as a nation." The United States has been very careful for over 50 years not to take a position at all on the matter of Taiwan's sovereignty.

While there may well be only "one China," that "one China" doesn't necessarily include Taiwan. And while the United States may not recognize the "Republic of China" (the official name of the regime in Taipei) as the Chinese government, the United States treats the Taipei government as an independent country for all intents and purposes.

One simple reason for this is that Section 4(b)(1) of the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in April 1979 after President Jimmy Carter broke relations with Taipei in favor of Beijing, states clearly: "Whenever the laws of the United States 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."

As a matter of policy, therefore, the United States does not accept China's claims to sovereignty over Taiwan. In September 1982, the State Department wrote Sen. John East that "the United States takes no position on the question of Taiwan's sovereignty." In his "Six Assurances" to Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo on July 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan promised that the United States "had not changed its long-standing position on the matter of sovereignty over Taiwan."

And what was that long-standing position? The State Department informed the U.S. Senate in 1970 (that's right, in 1970) that, "as Taiwan and the Pescadores are not covered by any existing international disposition, sovereignty over the area is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution." It is an important footnote of history that even while the Republic of China's government-in-exile maintained its provisional capital in Taipei, the United States did not recognize that Chinese government's sovereignty over Taiwan. (The U.S. only recognized "the Government of the Republic of China as legitimately occupying and exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan....") And the United States does not recognize China's sovereignty over Taiwan today - unless Secretary Powell's words were intended to change that position.

Powell's deafness to this reality is only one disturbing element of "Kung Pao Taiwan."

It is unsettling for the United States to be seen siding with an arrogant, belligerent, and aggressive Communist dictatorship against any democracy. But Taiwan isn't just any democracy: It has been one of America's staunchest allies - despite the 1979 break in formal diplomatic relations. Over the past 16 years, Taiwan has been the biggest purchaser of U.S. defense services and equipment, even bigger than Saudi Arabia or Israel. Taiwan is America's tenth-largest export market. Taiwan has Asia's fifth-largest military and Asia's second-largest merchant-marine fleet (after China's). And with the approval of long-range radar systems for Taiwan's army, the island could potentially be a vital link in America's global missile-defense architecture. It is the world's 17th-largest economy (on par with Russia's), and has nearly twice the population of Australia. The State Department also acknowledges that Taiwan is the third-largest contributor to Afghan reconstruction. Taiwan gave $150 million to U.S. efforts in the war on terror, refugee and victim relief, and Afghan reconstruction since the 9/11 attacks - and at Washington's request, it has seized dangerous chemical cargo from a North Korean ship, something no other U.S. partner except Japan has been willing to do.

Yet somehow Secretary Powell has been persuaded that democratic Taiwan's interests can be sacrificed to the warlike threats of Communist China.

In the end, the August 1991 "Chicken Kiev" speech backfired. Gorbachev's Union Treaty was designed to loosen the republics' federation with Moscow, and President Bush thought he was doing Gorbachev a favor by trying to steer the Ukraine away from independence and toward the Union Treaty. But 17 days later, long-grumbling Soviet military hardliners were emboldened by the U.S. president's explicit opposition to "independence," and at long last launched a coup against Gorbachev and his Union Treaty. Likewise, in the end, Powell's ill-considered disdain for the sovereignty of the Taiwanese people will bolster a mandate to consolidate Taiwan's status quo as a country that has been "independent" of China for over 55 years.

Some administration officials even marvel that "at least Kissinger would have gotten something in return," but Powell seems to have gotten nothing from China for his swipe at Taiwan. China disregarded Powell's blandishments to pressure North Korea, China ignored Powell's call to start talks with Taiwan, and China stonewalled Powell's call for a security dialogue at the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit

Two years from now, "Kung Pao Taiwan" will be seen as the beginning of a major strategic error reverberating across Asia. It did not dampen - but instead fed - China's belligerence, and it undermined the most important element of American foreign policy - that it reflect the values of the American people.

John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in National Review