Risking War for Taiwan?

January 6, 2000 • Commentary

As Taiwan swiftly approaches the first presidential election that the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) might lose, tensions between Beijing and Taipei are likely to rise. U.S. policy has unfortunately made the situation even more flammable. Indeed, reports are circulating that Richard Bush, head of the American Institute, Washington’s unofficial embassy in Taipei, has told Taiwan to cease its provocative behavior, lest the United States find itself pulled into a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. However, without a change in Washington’s policy, such warnings are likely to remain unheeded.

Taiwanese president Lee Teng‐​hui triggered a new escalation in tensions with his call for conducting Beijing‐​Taipei relations on a “state‐​to‐​state” basis. China’s reaction was predictably hostile: the People’s Republic of China established two missile bases near its coast, with the weapons apparently targeted on Taiwan. Taipei officials have responded by calling for the development of a fleet of Taiwanese long‐​range missiles.

Lee has indicated that his country already possesses some offensive missiles and warned that such mainland cities as Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing would suffer “terrible consequences” if the PRC attacked Taiwan. Such rhetoric is especially ominous. Conventional warheads on a few dozen missiles would certainly inflict damage, but Lee’s reference to terrible consequences suggests something more dramatic. It is a not very subtle hint that Taiwan possesses, and is prepared to use, nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in response to any attack.

Although responsible officials in both Beijing and Taipei want to avoid war (and certainly a nuclear war), the possibility of miscalculation is real and growing. China is entering a period of both economic and political instability; assertion of sovereignty over Taiwan is one of the few things on which most mainland Chinese agree. Likewise, given Vice President Lien Chan’s otherwise lackluster presidential campaign, the KMT’s tough stance toward Beijing may be its only hope for retaining power in the March election.

As a result, the potential for a military confrontation seems dangerously high. Yet the Clinton administration’s incoherent policy of “strategic ambiguity” continues to make a PRC‐​Taiwan conflict more likely. Even worse, it increases the likelihood that the United States would be dragged into such a struggle.

In Washington, the debate has been between two largely unsatisfactory strategies. Richard Bush has apparently reiterated the administration’s line: firm support for a “one‐​China” policy and equally firm criticism of Taipei’s attempt to act independently. The readiness to appease Beijing was evident when an unnamed administration official criticized President Lee’s comments on state‐​to‐​state relations and his failure to offer “a little bit more of an outstretched hand to get dialogue going.”

At the same time, the administration has had an “on again, off again” policy toward selling weapons to Taiwan. Yet for all the explicit calls for restraint, the administration has implicitly promised to defend the island state.

That is a dangerous combination. By rejecting Taiwan’s claim to independent status, Washington has undercut the credibility of its own implicit threat of military intervention. The administration’s affirmation of Beijing’s position encourages the PRC to act more provocatively. Yet, Washington’s implicit defense guarantee allows Taipei to act in the expectation of U.S. military support in case of trouble. This could lead to a risky game of international chicken, the result of which could be a catastrophic crisis triggered by a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence.

Unfortunately, although GOP critics of administration policy are more consistent, they are also more dangerous. Congressional Republicans are pushing the enactment of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA), which would expand military ties between Taipei and Washington. Some conservative activists want to formally recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China, and they would openly threaten to use force if Beijing acted against Taipei.

The risks of such an approach are many. China would likely sever diplomatic relations with the United States and, despite its limited military capabilities, could ill afford to ignore a Taiwanese declaration of independence or a U.S. decision to recognize Taipei. A measured Chinese response — seizing some small, essentially indefensible, Taiwanese offshore islands, for instance — would force Washington to choose between humiliating retreat and dangerous escalation. In neither case could America count on the support of any of its East Asian allies. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have all emphasized that their “mutual” defense treaties with the United States do not cover contingencies in the Taiwan Strait.

The United States should adopt a new policy of conflict avoidance. Taipei’s future should be up to the people of Taiwan, not the communist rulers in Beijing. However, just as the decision on independence should be left to Taipei, so should responsibility for Taiwan’s defense.

Washington should make clear that Taipei will bear the cost of miscalculating any move toward independence. The capitalist and democratic island is an attractive friend, but America has at stake no interests that justify risking military confrontation with nuclear‐​armed China. Washington should, however, sell Taiwan any weapons necessary to enable the island to defend itself.

Obviously, the PRC would be foolish to risk war with the United States. But nationalism sometimes causes nations to do stupid things, and Beijing rationally believes that Washington has less at stake in Taiwan than does China.

Although the Clinton administration has proved sadly ready to go to war, so far its adversaries have been pitiful. A conflict involving China would be vastly different. Washington needs to extricate itself from potential conflict before war erupts in the Taiwan Strait.

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