Commentary

China’s Patience Regarding Taiwan Is Growing Thin

When National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stopped in Beijing on her recent trip to Northeast Asia, she undoubtedly hoped that the North Korea nuclear threat would be the primary issue on the agenda. Instead, she got an earful from Jiang Zemin about China’s views regarding Taiwan. It was another indication that time is running out for Taiwan, for China, and for the United States.

Although Jiang is no longer president of the PRC, his statements carry considerable weight since he remains chairman of the country’s powerful Central Military Commission. Jiang stressed that China was committed to the “one country, two systems” formula for Taiwan’s status and that Beijing would “never” tolerate an independent Taiwan. He went on to chastise the Bush administration for its policy of selling sophisticated arms to Taiwan-most recently radar that can penetrate deeply into PRC territory and facilitate strikes by Taiwanese aircraft.

The substance of such comments was not new, but the tone was unusually firm and uncompromising. Moreover, Jiang’s statements are simply the latest in a series of developments that suggest that Beijing’s patience on the Taiwan issue is running out.

Long gone is the cavalier attitude of PRC leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s that the Taiwan issue could remain unresolved for decades without unduly upsetting Beijing. As Taiwan has democratized and accelerated its quest for international recognition, Beijing has become noticeably less sanguine.

A Chinese government white paper issued in 2000 emphasized that the Taiwanese authorities could not expect to indefinitely stall negotiations for reunification. For the first time, Beijing indicated that it might consider such delaying tactics alone sufficient grounds for resorting to military force.

Since then, the PRC has increased its confrontational posture. Just before the inauguration of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for a second term in May 2004, the PRC agency in charge of policy toward Taiwan issued a lengthy and revealing statement. On the one hand, it offered a number of prospective benefits to Taiwan if the regime there accepted the principle of one China. On the other hand, the statement made it clear that the consequences to Taiwan would be dire if the island continued its separatist ways. There was also a distinct implication that the issue must be settled in years, not decades.

And Beijing is backing up its increasingly insistent language with substantive military measures. The PRC has expanded deployment of missiles on its side of the Taiwan strait, and now has more than 500 missiles arrayed against Taiwan. Later this month, Chinese soldiers will for the first time practice a D-Day style invasion, conducting mock air, sea, and ground operations on Dongshan Island, a densely populated island off the mainland coast.

Perhaps most ominous, there are reports that the PRC has begun a program to build a large number of amphibious landing craft. One must question whether the Beijing authorities would expend considerable financial resources on such a program unless they were at least considering the option of using force against Taiwan.

It should not be surprising if Beijing’s desire to regain Taiwan is growing more insistent. Taiwan’s status is a hot-button issue for most mainland Chinese. Even those Chinese who are not especially fond of the communist regime tend to believe that the island is rightfully part of China. From their perspective, Japan stole the province from China in 1895, and, by shielding the island militarily, the United States prevented reunification following the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces in 1949.

As the PRC grows stronger economically and militarily, it is logical that the determination to regain the lost province would also grow. Moreover, Chinese leaders suspect (with good reason) that time is not on their side. Younger Taiwanese in particular regard the mainland as an alien place and have little enthusiasm for reunification. Beijing fears that the prospect of regaining Taiwan may be lost forever if action is not taken relatively soon.

All of this puts the United States in a delicate and dangerous position. U.S. leaders repeatedly try to have it both ways. On the one hand, even the conservative Bush administration professes allegiance to a one China policy. Yet Washington also is committed to defend Taiwan if the PRC attacks the island. U.S. leaders try to stay on that diplomatic tightrope by proclaiming that they oppose any unilateral action by either side to change the status quo.

But the signs are mounting that the status quo will not be sustainable indefinitely. Rice and other Bush administration officials might wish that the problem would go away, but it is not about to do so. American leaders may soon have to change Washington’s policy on Taiwan or face the nightmare of having to honor its security commitment to the island. Time is running out.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of five books and editor of 10 books on international affairs.