Wall Street Journal: Global View Tuesday, March 21, 2000
One China' Policy Is Obsolete
Eliot A. Cohen
of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced
International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. )
of Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan has once again raised
fears of conflict with mainland China. It would be comforting
to think that the Taiwan Straits dispute will be resolved
if Beijing is patient and Taipei is circumspect. Indeed, the
Clinton administration responded in just that way to the last
round of Chinese threats, issued just before the vote in Taiwan.
Officials in Washington alternated between pretending that
nothing is really the matter (the reaction of our ambassador
in China) to sounding vague notes of menace (from the undersecretary
of defense for policy) or mere embarrassed murmurings (from
the State Department).
now, the administration -- and in some measure the larger
foreign policy establishment -- has wished to believe that
the mounting friction between the PRC and Taiwan reflected
mere ill temper on one side, and loose talk about formal independence
on the other. This diagnosis is wrong. China's threat to use
force if Taiwan does not begin negotiating for unification
marks not a perturbation in Beijing's foreign policy, but
a deeper trend.
of conflict lie, first and foremost, in the past decade's
remarkable institutionalization of Taiwanese democracy. Taiwan,
having dismantled much (not all) of the Kuomintang single-party
state, has a lively and vigorous democracy, manifested in
the defeat of the Kuomintang by a liberal, indigenous opposition
of a free and stable Taiwan poses two challenges to China.
First, it makes highly unlikely a reunification agreement
cut by governments over the heads of their people (as occurred
in Hong Kong and Macau, where Beijing negotiated with colonial
authorities and the locals had no voice in their destiny).
Second, it makes clear to the Chinese people that there are
alternatives to the corrupt pseudocommunist system on the
mainland, whose legitimacy rests on continuous economic growth
and, increasingly, on nationalist fervor. China is right to
fear this change; the U.S. would be wrong to yield to that
announced in 1978 that it would withdraw diplomatic recognition
from Taiwan, it may have been true that Chinese on both sides
of the Straits agreed that there was only one China. And until
President Clinton blundered into a different formulation,
the U.S. merely acknowledged this as the common Chinese, not
the American, view. But Taiwanese public opinion has changed,
and understandably so. Today China and Taiwan are, in fact,
two viable, independent states. The pretense that there is
only one is just that -- a self-willed, if convenient fraud.
same time, China is bound to become more aggressive. After
all, it has successfully absorbed Hong Kong and Macau. It
faces domestic political turbulence. And its military has
fed for some time on increasing defense budgets, improved
training and education, and government-manipulated nationalism.
Beijing has acquired the means to back up its bluster with
force. A February 1999 Pentagon report documents China's military
buildup: the construction of bases opposite Taiwan, the acquisition
of top-of-the-line Russian ships and aircraft, and a rapid
program of development and acquisition of ballistic and cruise
military, still emerging from obsolescent command and training
structures developed by the Kuomintang party dictatorship,
may find itself unable to prevent lethal harassment -- blockade
by air or submarine, missile strikes, mining of harbors, seizure
of outlying islands -- all with a view to making the island
accede to eventual unification. The threat may not be immediate
(though China did fire missiles off Taiwan's coast in 1996),
but it certainly looms large in the next five years.
outcome would be a strategic disaster for the U.S., for three
reasons. First, the success of stable and free democratic
states is an overwhelming national interest of the U.S. Second,
Washington's credibility in Asia is profoundly tied up with
its guarantees to Taiwan. Third, should Beijing ever gain
control of Taiwan, it will establish a geostrategic position
in the South China Sea that would extend its influence far
beyond its immediate surroundings.
Taiwan and deter China, it will not suffice for Washington
merely to transfer a few high-technology weapon systems, like
Aegis-class cruisers for missile defense, to Taiwan. The threats
the Taiwanese face are varied and complex, and Taipei will
need more than the ability to shoot down a handful of ballistic
missiles, useful as such a capability would be.
would be a response that begins by affirming America's commitment
to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which asserted that the
U.S. would oppose "any effort to determine the future
of Taiwan by other than peaceful means," including boycotts
and embargoes, let alone military force. Washington should
adopt a broader program of military aid to Taiwan -- to include
open and extensive training and military planning, as well
as arms sales that might even include retaliatory weapons
such as conventional submarines. The U.S. must deliver a consistent
message to China that it will vigorously oppose -- with military
power -- any attempt to unify Taiwan with the mainland by
force or threat of force.
shouldn't do, though, is withhold normal trade relations from
China, an ineffectual tool of deterrence that might prove
counterproductive. There's no guarantee that a more open economic
order would restrain Beijing's international behavior, but
if anything can foster change within mainland China, it is
its integration into the world economy.
resolute Washington is with Beijing, it is entirely conceivable
that the U.S. will find itself confronting China over Taiwan.
The roots of conflict go deep, and external powers cannot
control the domestic politics of either.
likely outcome, unfortunately, is that the U.S. will continue
to confuse China and others by sending mixed, and occasionally
weak signals about its intentions and determination.
end, American national interest, and not mere sentiment, will
require that American military power come to the rescue of
Taiwan in a crisis. But that crisis will be infinitely worse
if officials blunder into letting others think that the U.S.