Washington’s Incoherent Policy on Taiwan

August 4, 1999 • Commentary

Taiwan has re‐​emerged as a potential flash point in relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Lee Teng-hui’s apparent abandonment of the “one China” principle and his insistence that Taipei‐​Beijing relations are to be conducted on a “state‐​to‐​state” basis caught the Clinton administration by surprise. Administration officials quickly reiterated Washington’s adherence to a one China policy and demanded an explanation from Taipei. The administration also has leaked stories to the news media that it is contemplating cutting off arms sales to Taiwan as a more tangible expression of displeasure. At the same time, President Clinton warns that the United States would “take very seriously” any attempt by the PRC to use force against Taiwan.

Although Taiwanese officials are now insisting that Lee’s comments were misconstrued and did not constitute a change in policy, that assertion is greeted with widespread disbelief internationally. In any case, the upsurge in tensions between Taipei and Beijing is causing uneasiness in America. Although the United States has no explicit obligation to defend Taiwan, it is likely–as Clinton’s comments suggest–that U.S. leaders would not stand by if the PRC engaged in coercion. Even a repetition of Beijing’s 1996 missile tests in the Taiwan Strait could lead to a U.S.-PRC military confrontation. More drastic PRC actions, such as a blockade of Taiwan or the seizure of the off shore islands of Kinmen and Matsu (scenarios that cannot be dismissed), would almost certainly do so.

Taipei’s provocative diplomatic initiative came at an especially difficult time in the U.S.-PRC relationship. Animosity had already reached alarming levels because of the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the subsequent anti‐​American riots in several Chinese cities, and the release of the Cox Committee report alleging two decades of espionage by Beijing designed to steal information on America’s most sophisticated nuclear‐​weapons programs.

Worst of all, the new Taiwan crisis has exposed deep divisions in American attitudes about policy toward China. The Clinton administration reflexively chants the one China mantra even as support within Congress and the opinion elite for that position is crumbling. Moreover, there is a dangerous contradiction at the heart of the administration’s policy. Even as Clinton parrots Beijing’s view that Taiwan has no right to statehood (or even limited international recognition) the president implies that the United States would come to Taiwan’s rescue if the island were attacked. The sending of such mixed signals virtually invites trouble.

The confusion and inconsistency (if not incoherence) of the administration’s policy has also enabled anti‐​PRC factions in Congress, aided by various interest groups, to mount a serious challenge. The Cox Committee report is merely one salvo in the campaign to compel the administration (or its successor) to adopt a more hard‐​line policy toward Beijing. Critics of the PRC want to defeat the annual renewal of normal trade status for China, block Beijing’s admission to the World Trade Organization, impose far more stringent restrictions on technology exports to the PRC, and provide an explicit defense guarantee to Taiwan. Indeed, the Senate will begin consideration early next month of legislation sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and other opponents of the PRC to “clarify” the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act by adding provisions that require greater U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense.

U.S. policy toward China is in a dangerous state of disarray. The unsettling reality is that neither the administration nor the hard‐​line opposition seems capable of articulating a China policy that is simultaneously clear, realistic and prudent. Instead, there is a duel between a muddled and obsolete administration policy and a myopic alternative strategy that regards the PRC as a mortal enemy of the United States. Wise Americans ought to reject both approaches.

The United States should seek to maintain decent relations with the PRC, but U.S. officials must stop giving undue deference to Beijing’s “one China” claims. Instead, Washington needs to articulate a new policy that includes the following elements: 1) The United States takes no position on the issue of whether there is one China, two Chinas, or one China‐​one Taiwan; 2) Whether Taiwan politically rejoins the mainland or maintains a separate political existence is properly a decision for the people of Taiwan to make; 3) The United States will continue to sell Taiwan defensive weapons as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act; and 4) Under no circumstances will the United States become involved militarily if an armed conflict breaks out between PRC and Taiwanese forces.

Such a policy would affirm the right of the Taiwanese people to determine their own political destiny. At the same time, it would put Taipei on notice that, if it rejects the one China principle and proceeds down the path toward separatism and full independence, it must do so at its own risk.

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