During his trip to China, President Clinton changed U.S. policy on Taiwan in a subtle but significant way. Washington’s position since 1972 had been that the United States did not challenge the assertion of Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait that there is one China and Taiwan is part of China. Clinton went much further, signaling U.S. hostility to the possibility of an independent Taiwan or even Taiwanese membership in international organizations.
Clinton thus took a major step toward the position advocated by those Americans who want Washington to mollify Beijing by such measures as terminating U.S. arms sales to the island. Yet the president also implied that the United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from attack. That “accommodationist” approach combines the worst, most dangerous features of appeasement and firmness.
Nearly as dangerous is the policy of all-out support for Taiwan that many American conservatives suggest. A U.S. security guarantee to Taiwan would lack credibility and, given the emotional determination of mainland Chinese to pursue reunification, could easily entangle the United States in a war with a nuclear-armed great power. That is all the more likely because enthusiasm for formal independence is growing in Taiwan, and the United States would be pressured to back that bid.
The only solution is for the United States to allow increased arms sales to Taiwan, thus enabling the Taiwanese to build a self-sufficient defense and an effective deterrent to coercion by Beijing. At the same time, U.S. officials must make it clear that Taiwan is not a vital American interest and that under no circumstances will the United States intervene in a war between the island and the mainland.