Commentary

China’s Taiwan Policy and America’s Difficult Choices

When National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice stopped in Beijing on her recent trip to Northeast Asia, she heard blunt comments from Jiang Zemin about Taiwan. Less than a week later, the PRC embassy in Washington held an unusual press conference to issue a statement sharply critical of the Bush administration’s conduct — especially its policy of selling sophisticated arms to Taiwan.

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

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.

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 spend money 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. 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 would be content if the current arrangement (official support for a one-China policy but with Taiwan being able to maintain its de facto independence) went on indefinitely. That was the import of President Bush’s statement in December 2003 emphasizing that the United States opposed unilateral efforts by either Taipei or Beijing to change the status quo.

But the signs are mounting that the status quo will not be sustainable indefinitely. Within a decade, the United States will likely have to select from an unappealing menu of choices.

One option would be to strengthen the implicit commitment under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to defend Taiwan. But as Beijing’s military power continues to grow, that commitment will require the deployment of more U.S. air and naval forces to the western Pacific. Moreover, although such a robust military presence might deter Beijing from coercing Taiwan, it would certainly produce a chill in U.S.-China relations and increase the risk of war. And a war in the Taiwan strait would be a disaster for both the PRC and the United States. The mutually beneficial economic relationship (now valued at more than $150 billion a year) would be severed, and America’s relations with a major power would be poisoned for decades.

A second option would be to accelerate the trend that was becoming apparent during the last years of the Clinton administration and move to accommodate Beijing on the Taiwan issue. From the standpoint of cold calculations of America’s national interest, that might be the logical course. The strategy would require the United States to end its arms sales to Taiwan, express explicit opposition to Taiwan’s independence, and quietly but firmly suggest to the Taiwanese leadership that it begin to negotiate seriously with Beijing about the terms of reunification. Most Americans, however, would be reluctant to help consign a democratic Taiwan to the tender mercies of an authoritarian PRC. Regaining Taiwan might also whet Beijing’s appetite for further gains in East Asia — something that would clearly not be in America’s best interest.

A final option would be to give Taiwan a chance to preserve its de facto independence but limit America’s risk exposure. Such a strategy would continue arms sales to Taiwan despite Beijing’s objections, but it would also end the commitment to defend Taiwan with U.S. forces. Taiwanese leaders would be told to make their own decisions about independence or reunification, but whatever decision they made would have to be at their own risk. This course seems the least bad of the available alternatives.

In any case, U.S. policymakers will likely have to embrace one of these choices in the near future. The uneasy (but for America, highly beneficial) status quo is simply not sustainable much longer. Time is running out for Taiwan, for China, and for the United States.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author of 5 books and editor of 10 books on international affairs. His latest book, The Coming War with China over Taiwan: Inevitable or Avoidable? is forthcoming from Palgrave/Macmillan.