Keeping Peace in the Taiwan Strait

March 24, 2000 • Commentary
Reprinted with permission from Copley News Service.

Transitions to democracy are often messy.

But, Taiwan has successfully made the jump, as voters dumped the Kuomintang Party after a half‐​century of uninterrupted rule.

Now, President‐​elect Chen Shui‐​bian, who was once jailed for his opposition activities, must exhibit the same political dexterity internationally in order to avoid war with China.

Taiwan has been separate from the mainland for a century, but Beijing’s demand for reunification has been growing increasingly shrill.

Six days before the election, Premier Zhu Rongji warned Taiwanese voters not to elect Chen, whose Democratic Progressive Party once advocated formal independence. The People’s Republic of China, Zhu explained, was willing to “shed blood.”

Chinese President Jiang Zemin responded to Chen’s victory by offering to talk, but only with a Taiwanese leader who believed in “One China.” Chen’s aides speak hopefully that he, like Richard Nixon, can find an opening with the PRC.

Unfortunately, the possibility of miscalculation remains high. Jiang and Zhu may be reasonable men, but nationalism sometimes causes reasonable men to do unreasonable things.

They might use Taiwan as a unifying force in the face of economic and political instability. Or, their enemies might use Taiwan against them.

Yan Xuetong, who serves with a Chinese government think tank, says that “long‐​term, war is unavoidable,” and that “for me, long‐​term is definitely within 10 years.”

Making the Taiwan Strait particularly incendiary is the Clinton administration’s confused policy. Rhetorically, the president has given China almost everything that it wants opposition to a two‐​China policy, and Taiwan’s independence and membership in international organizations.

Moreover, Washington pressured Taipei to soften its stance after outgoing President Lee Teng‐​hui proposed state‐​to‐​state relations with China, and has resisted selling weapons to Taiwan.

At the same time, the administration has implied that Washington would defend the island if Beijing attacked.

In short, the U.S. government would strip Taiwan of its legitimacy as a separate international actor and keep it militarily weak, but intervene if war breaks out. This is an extraordinarily stupid combination.

Washington’s policy actually makes Taipei more willing to play international chicken. Private conversations with Taiwanese officials indicate that they believe the United States would act if Taiwan was threatened. Many Chen voters seemed to share this sentiment. One teacher told the Washington Times: “Beijing will not resort to force carelessly (because) the U.S. is the world police.”

Yet, Beijing takes Washington’s threats far less seriously. Incredulous Chinese officials consider Taiwan to be an internal affair, and cannot understand America’s willingness to meddle.

Would Washington really risk Los Angeles to protect Taipei, they ask? It’s a good question, but if Beijing guesses wrong, it could find itself at war with America.

To encourage peace in the Taiwan Strait, Washington should first decide to stay out of any shooting war and make that clear to Taipei. Taiwan can adopt any international strategy that it desires, but it should not expect an American rescue. Indeed, a recent News​Max​.com/​Zogby poll found that more than two‐​thirds of Americans opposed defending Taiwan.

Equally important, Washington should loosen its definition of defensive weapons available to Taiwan. Although Beijing is presently incapable of mounting an invasion, it is expanding its navy and missile bases near Taiwan.

Taiwan should be allowed to buy any weapon that it deems necessary to deter China from attempting military intimidation, whether a full‐​scale invasion, ocean blockade, missile strike or smaller‐​scale military action. Taiwanese officials refuse to publicly identify the weapons that they desire, but attack submarines, guided‐​missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar system, P-3 surveillance aircraft, AMRAAM air‐​to‐​air missiles, long‐​range radar and Patriot ground‐​to‐​air interceptors reportedly top Taipei’s list.

Taiwan would also be an obvious participant in any theater missile defense system. Taipei possesses a huge financial reserve; Washington should help the island spend it.

The administration has been reluctant to act out of fear of offending Beijing, but that’s no excuse for leaving Taiwan ill‐​equipped to defend itself.

David Shambaugh of George Washington University warns that weapons sales would “accelerate the growing cross‐​strait arms race,” but China is already racing.

Beijing recently announced a 12.7 percent hike in military outlays. China is seeking to eliminate Taipei’s technological edge; last month, China took delivery of its latest Russian‐​built destroyer armed with nuclear‐​capable missiles.

Allowing Taiwan to develop a deterrent force is the single most important step to deter conflict. Unlike Washington’s implicit defense guarantee, Taipei’s threat to resist would be credible. And a China that could not count on an easy victory would be much less likely to risk war.

With its election of Chen Shui‐​bian, Taiwan will be sailing in uncertain waters. Having successfully established a free and prosperous democracy, Taiwan now needs the military tools to ensure that its future is decided peacefully.

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