If proof were ever needed that Communist apparatchiks don’t understand democracy, it was provided by the attempt of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to intimidate the Taiwanese people before their recent presidential election. Bluster, threats, and missile tests from Beijing only increased President Lee Teng-hui’s electoral majority.
Although the danger to the Republic of China (ROC) has since abated, tensions remain high. As Foreign Minister Chang John delicately puts it, the relationship between the two Chinas has “not yet been fully restored.” In fact, in response to ROC government pressure, the Formosa Plastics Group recently suspended plans for a $3 billion power plant in southern China. President Lee’s government is intent both on Smiting its investment - now about $25 billion -in its potentially hostile neighbor and demonstrating that Beijing will pay a price for its truculence.
The problem is that the PRC claims sovereignty over Taiwan, which became the home of the Nationalist government after its 1949 ouster during the Chinese civil war. Taipei, though no longer claiming to be the legitimate ruler of the mainland, maintains that it is an independent government. Between these two positions there is no obvious compromise, only an uneasy accommodation—the ROC acts independently but doesn’t claim independence.
Taipei, however, has grown increasingly dissatisfied with this situation. Taiwan is now wealthier than a number of European nations, one of the most important trading nations, and a major investor overseas. It has also successfully made the transition from autocracy to democracy That, in turn, has loosed the force of public opinion, which is hostile towards Beijing’s ambitions. As a result, last year the Lee government began a more assertive international strategy—with President Lee visiting the US and other countries, and his ministers pressing for Taiwan’s membership in such international organizations as the UN and GATT. Beijing responded with intimidation. How far the PRC is willing to go is unknown, but Beijing pointedly refuses to renounce the use of force to reunify China.
Unfortunately, the ROC is vulnerable to attack from the mainland. The PRC probably does not have the capacity to successfully conquer the island—invasions like D-Day in Europe and Inchon in Korea require massive air- and sea-lift capacity and overwhelming military superiority. Beijing could, however, attempt to blockade Taiwan, with only the US Seventh Fleet obviously capable of lifting such a siege.
Taipei is clearly counting on American support in a crisis. Foreign Minister Chang lauds the dispatch of US vessels to the Taiwan Straits earlier this year as “truly helping to stabilize the situation.” He implicitly makes the case for continuing American involvement by proclaiming the ROC’s strategic importance to “the security of the entire region.”
That the ROC deserves to be free from Chinese threats is clear. That Washington should court war with Beijing to preserve Taiwan’s independence is not. Of course, many policymakers hope that the mere threat of US intervention will deter the PRC from taking aggressive action. But the island matters much more to the nationalistic and status conscious PRC than to America, and Beijing knows it. PRC officials may very well doubt that, in a crunch, Washington would risk war with another nuclear power over what is at most a tangential security interest. And, in fact, for this reason the US should not do so.
What would make sense, however, would be for the US to allow the ROC to buy the weapons necessary for its own defense. Taipei is in the process of purchasing 150 F-16Bs and has concluded a deal for 1,300 Stinger missiles, but the State Department has so far blocked its acquisition of attack submarines.
The reason? They are allegedly “offensives weapons that would alter the inter-Chinese military balance.” But Taiwan has no intention of invading the mainland; rather, submarines would help it deter aggressive action by a PRC that has been steadily improving the quality of its own military forces. Washington should also make available to the ROC any anti-ballistic-missile technologies that grow out of its own research.
The Taiwanese have built a prosperous and democratic republic. They have earned the goodwill of Americans but not the blood of US soldiers in a conflict. The US should instead assist the ROC in developing a military capable of deterring aggression from across the strait.