Washington’s Incoherent Policy on Taiwan

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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 commentsweremisconstrued and did not constitute a change in policy, that assertionisgreeted with widespread disbelief internationally. In any case, theupsurge in tensions between Taipei and Beijing is causing uneasiness inAmerica. Although the United States has no explicit obligation todefendTaiwan, it is likely--as Clinton's comments suggest--that U.S. leaderswould not stand by if the PRC engaged in coercion. Even a repetition ofBeijing's 1996 missile tests in the Taiwan Strait could lead to aU.S.-PRCmilitary confrontation. More drastic PRC actions, such as a blockade ofTaiwan 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 especiallydifficulttime in the U.S.-PRC relationship. Animosity had already reachedalarminglevels because of the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade,thesubsequent anti-American riots in several Chinese cities, and thereleaseof the Cox Committee report alleging two decades of espionage by Beijingdesigned to steal information on America's most sophisticatednuclear-weapons programs.

Worst of all, the new Taiwan crisis has exposed deep divisions inAmericanattitudes about policy toward China. The Clinton administrationreflexively chants the one China mantra even as support within Congressandthe opinion elite for that position is crumbling. Moreover, there is adangerous contradiction at the heart of the administration's policy.Evenas Clinton parrots Beijing's view that Taiwan has no right to statehood(oreven limited international recognition) the president implies that theUnited 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 theadministration's policy has also enabled anti-PRC factions in Congress,aided by various interest groups, to mount a serious challenge. The CoxCommittee report is merely one salvo in the campaign to compel theadministration (or its successor) to adopt a more hard-line policytowardBeijing. Critics of the PRC want to defeat the annual renewal of normaltrade status for China, block Beijing's admission to the World TradeOrganization, impose far more stringent restrictions on technologyexportsto the PRC, and provide an explicit defense guarantee to Taiwan.Indeed,the Senate will begin consideration early next month of legislationsponsored by Senator Jesse Helms and other opponents of the PRC to"clarify" the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act by adding provisions thatrequiregreater U.S. support for Taiwan's defense.

U.S. policy toward China is in a dangerous state of disarray. Theunsettling reality is that neither the administration nor the hard-lineopposition seems capable of articulating a China policy that issimultaneously clear, realistic and prudent. Instead, there is a duelbetween a muddled and obsolete administration policy and a myopicalternative strategy that regards the PRC as a mortal enemy of theUnitedStates. Wise Americans ought to reject both approaches.

The United States should seek to maintain decent relations with thePRC,but U.S. officials must stop giving undue deference to Beijing's "oneChina" claims. Instead, Washington needs to articulate a new policythatincludes the following elements: 1) The United States takes no positiononthe issue of whether there is one China, two Chinas, or one China-oneTaiwan; 2) Whether Taiwan politically rejoins the mainland or maintainsaseparate political existence is properly a decision for the people ofTaiwan to make; 3) The United States will continue to sell Taiwandefensiveweapons as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act; and 4) Under nocircumstances will the United States become involved militarily if anarmedconflict breaks out between PRC and Taiwanese forces.

Such a policy would affirm the right of the Taiwanese people todeterminetheir own political destiny. At the same time, it would put Taipei onnotice that, if it rejects the one China principle and proceeds down thepath toward separatism and full independence, it must do so at its ownrisk.