October 25, 2004

October 25, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Plain Talk needed in Beijing

In his visit next week to Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will find the Taiwan issue front and center on the agenda. Mr. Powell should expect Chinese leaders to speak bluntly to him, as they have done with Vice President Cheney last April, and with National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice in July. But if there is to be clarity in this dialogue, Mr. Powell needs to speak plainly in return.

In the past year, various top U.S. officials have made clear statements of American policy to the Congress and to the press. But for some reason, that clarity seems to be lacking in face-to-face encounters with Chinese.

For example, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are at the core of Beijing's grievances against Washington and over the decades Chinese leaders regularly complain to American leaders that these sales run counter to American commitments embodied in the so-called "Three Communiques". Yet, in a meeting with Chinese foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in Washington on September 30, Secretary Powell addressed Chinese complaints in vague diplomatic jargon which simply "noted" the obligations the Bush Administration has under the Taiwan Relations Act, and declared that U.S. actions are consistent with the Three Communiques.

This is a confusing message that is garbled by Secretary Powell's desire to avoid speaking plainly to the Chinese. Instead, Mr. Powell should have reminded Minister Li of another permanent feature of American policy: that the level of U.S. arms sales and military exchanges with Taiwan are linked absolutely to the level of threat China poses to Taiwan.

Maintaining a defense relationship with Taiwan was an explicit condition -- not just of the Taiwan Relations Act, but of U.S. normalization with China in 1979. The decision to accept continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was made by none other than China's "paramount leader," Deng Xiaoping. One top U.S. diplomat, John H. Holdridge, wrote that in December 1978, "Deng Xiaoping's concerns over continuing arms sales to Taiwan were stifled for the moment" by China's strategic imperative of preparing for an imminent invasion of Vietnam (which came on February 19, 1979). Indeed, China's ambassador to the United States Zhang Wenjin admitted to Holdridge that China "swallowed the bitter pill" of continued arms sales to Taiwan "for strategic reasons."

Over the past four months, China has demanded the so-called "Three Stops": 1) stop all arms sales; 2) stop official encounters with Taiwan; 3) and stop supporting Taiwan's role in international organizations. China demands a cessation in arms sales, but in the meantime, China has increased its missile deployments from 500 in 2003 to an estimated 600 by the end of 2004. More disturbing, defense sources in Washington have told me that China has dramatically increased the number of jet fighter sorties along the "center-line" of the Taiwan Strait from two a day to forty a day in recent weeks. China apparently feels that military posturing will induce the United States to back away from its support for Taiwan.

When Secretary Powell arrives in Beijing, he will be confronted with Chinese demands that the United States abandon its defense support for Taiwan. I hope that Secretary Powell abandons vagueness and adopts clarity. He should restate that it has been U.S. policy for 25 years to sell arms to Taiwan, and that the United States could not have normalized relations with China in 1979 unless this was clearly understood. He should also repeat patiently, as President Ronald Reagan declared in 1982, that the level of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is "conditioned absolutely" upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences and that "the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy."

Finally, Secretary Powell should remind his Chinese hosts that (in the words of Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly) Washington's "one China Policy" is "our one China policy" and is emphatically not "Beijing's one China Principle."

He should make it plain that "our one China policy" must not be misinterpreted as an acknowledgement that Beijing has any right in international law or otherwise to use force against Taiwan. According to Mr. Kelly, U.S. policy on Taiwan-China frictions is that the People's Republic should "renounce the use of force regarding Taiwan", and that both sides should "pursue dialogue as soon as possible through any available channels, without preconditions" and "on an equal basis." A good place to start was presented by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's October 10 national day speech, which, as the State Department spokesman told reporters on October 18, contains elements "that were "creative" and "constructive" and it offers "an opportunity here to get back to a cross-strait dialogue that should be looked at by all the parties."

Taiwan's democracy is an affront to the legitimacy of the Chinese communist regime in Beijing. The March 2004 re-election of Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian was clear evidence that sentiment for a Taiwanese political identity separate from China's is now in the mainstream of Taiwan's electorate. The survival and success of Taiwan's new democratic government is in America's interests. As Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman pointed out, President Bush's "National Security Strategy", published in September 2002, calls for 'building a balance of power that favors freedom.' Taiwan's evolution into a true multi-party democracy over the past decade is proof of the importance of America's commitment to Taiwan's defense. It strengthens American resolve to see Taiwan's democracy grow and prosper.

If Mr. Rodman can say this to the U.S. Congress, then Secretary Powell should be able to say it to the Chinese leadership.

Mr. Tkacik, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

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

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in Taipei Apple Daily