People's Republic of China (PRC) once again is threatening military
action against the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC). The
Beijing-controlled media in Hong Kong report Chinese troops
gathering in provinces across the Taiwan Strait and hint at a
possible campaign to seize an ROC island. China's Minister of
Defense is promising to punish Taiwan for attempting to "split the
motherland." And PRC fighter aircraft taunt the island with near
danger of a shooting war through mischance or miscalculation is
great. Taiwan's Ministry of Defense has instructed its pilots not
to fire first, but no one would be surprised if they returned fire.
How the Clinton Administration proceeds in the next few weeks could
mean the difference between defusing these tensions or military
China's rhetorical assault on Taiwan followed a remark made by ROC
President Lee Teng-hui in an interview with a German radio station
reporter on July 9. Lee said that Taiwan would not negotiate with
Beijing on anything but a basis of equality. When the reporter
pointed out that the PRC regards Taiwan as "a renegade province,"
Lee replied (as he frequently has done) that the Republic of China
has existed since 1912, has never lost its sovereignty, and in fact
has diplomatic relations with a number of countries.
President Lee pointed out that Taiwan is
not and never was a province of the PRC. Their relations are
similar to the relationship between East and West Germany. In 1972,
the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic
signed a treaty establishing a state-to-state relationship on the
basis of "two states within Germany." Both states were admitted to
the United Nations.
Hence, Lee's remark that the relationship
between Taipei and Beijing was on a "state-to-state or special
state-to-state basis" would be understood by a German audience to
explain why Taiwan would never negotiate with Beijing as a province
would with a central government.
The Administration's Policy
The Clinton Administration's reaction to President Lee's
observation was almost as intemperate as that of Jiang Zemin's
government in Beijing. The White House had inherited an ambiguous
"one China doctrine" in which the United States acknowledged
China's position that there was but one China, of which Taiwan was
a part; but it stated no position of its own. That is, not until
last year in Shanghai, when President Bill Clinton agreed to the
PRC's "three no's" formula: The United States would not support
Taiwan independence, a "two Chinas" or "one China, one Taiwan"
formula, or Taiwan's membership in any international organization
that required statehood for membership.
Agreeing to China's "three no's" stripped
away much of the necessary ambiguity in the formal "one China"
policy that had guided U.S.-China and U.S.-Taiwan relations for two
decades: If Taiwan was not independent and not a state, what could
it be, other than a province of the government Washington
recognized in 1979 as "the sole legal government of China"? Faced
with this change in U.S. policy, it is no wonder that President Lee
was compelled to clarify Taiwan's position. It also is no wonder
that Beijing demanded that the Clinton Administration pressure
Taipei to acquiesce.
What Should Be Done.
How the Clinton Administration should respond to the use of
military force by the PRC is rooted in the 1979 Taiwan Relations
Act (Public Law 96-8), which states that any attempt by the PRC to
determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would
be "a threat to the peace and security of Western Pacific area and
of grave concern to the United States." This language--"a threat to
the peace and security" of a region--conforms to the language of
Chapter VII in the United Nations Charter, which sets out the right
of collective action against aggression. Sec. 2(b)(6) of the TRA
requires the United States to maintain the "capacity to resist any
resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize
the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on
reduce the threat of war, the Administration should make clear to
Beijing that it will not tolerate any military action against
Taiwan and that any aggression will be resisted by U.S. forces in
the region. Such a response followed China's threatening military
exercises in the Strait on the eve of Taiwan's presidential
election in March 1996. The U.S. Navy deployed two aircraft
carriers and 36 ships and submarines to the region to defuse that
the longer term, the Administration must distance itself from
public or veiled support of Beijing's views regarding Taiwan. It is
not up to the United States to determine Taiwan's future status.
This right belongs to the people of Taiwan alone, not to a
government in distant Washington. Although the United States no
longer recognizes the ROC diplomatically, the Taiwan Relations Act
establishes that, for all purposes of U.S. law, Taiwan is to be
treated as a state separate and distinct from the PRC.
Twenty-seven years ago, when President
Richard Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué stipulating
that "all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree there is
but one China of which Taiwan is a part," Taiwan was led by a
military dictatorship that claimed to be the sole legitimate
government of all of China. In 1979, the United States shifted
diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Since then,
following the will of the overwhelming majority of its people,
Taipei no longer claims to govern China. Taiwan is now a multiparty
democracy with free and vigorously contested elections and no
Clinton Administration claims that promoting democracy is one of
its goals. Yet its failure to clarify America's commitment to
support the right of Taiwan's 22 million people to determine their
own future--free from coercion or military threat--would be an
unpardonable betrayal of American ideals and could lead to an armed
conflict with disastrous results.
Harvey Feldman, a former U.S. ambassador, is Senior
Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.