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“End The One-China Fiction?”

October 28, 1999 - By James Hackett

Early next year, Washington may face an explosive issue that could lead to war in the Pacific. That issue is the independence of Taiwan.

The trigger could be the March election for the next president of that island nation. President Lee Teng-hui, the first Chinese ruler ever to win free elections, is stepping down in March at the end of his term. The election to succeed him is shaping up as a real horse race; any of the three principal candidates could win.

The governing Kuomintang is represented by Vice President Lien Chan, a competent but uninspiring deputy to a popular president. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which wins about half the vote in major cities, is running Chen Shui-bian, recently mayor of Taipei. The wild card is former Gov. James Soong, a member of the ruling KMT running as an independent. Mr. Soong is most charismatic of the three and is leading in early polls.

The rulers in Beijing are watching the election closely. China's generals threaten to invade if Taiwan moves toward independence, and like the Japanese generals who bombed Pearl Harbor, their fanaticism may be hard to restrain. Yet, the reality is that Taiwan already is independent in every way except in the eyes of the international community.
Fifty years after Chiang Kai-shek led his defeated army to the island, the old guard has died off and many born on Taiwan consider themselves more Taiwanese than Chinese. They have established a vibrant economy based on free enterprise and created a multiparty democracy. The desire to rejoin the mainland is diminishing, and there is no interest in joining a communist dictatorship.

But the Clinton administration opposes independence for Taiwan and repeats the old mantra, demanded by Beijing, that there is but one China. The reality is that there is one China and one Taiwan -- the former controlled by a communist dictatorship and the latter prospering under freely elected leaders.

Last June, President Lee said Taiwan and China must do business on a state-to-state basis; that two Chinas can and should coexist. The communist regime in Beijing has never ruled Taiwan and if the people of Taiwan have any say, it never will. As the world's leading democracy, the United States should enthusiastically support self-determination for Taiwan.
President Lee's simple statement led Beijing to spew vituperation; rattle its neutron bomb; conduct a long-range missile test; move troops and submarines opposite Taiwan; and even threaten war. President Clinton supported these warlike moves by criticizing President Lee for stating the truth.

Now Taiwan is in an election campaign that may generate more controversial statements. The DPP has advocated Taiwan independence and if it wins, or if any candidate mentions independence with the wrong nuance, the hard-liners in Beijing may initiate military action. The danger is that Mr. Clinton's incessant pandering could make China's leaders think they can attack without facing the United States.

When President Nixon reopened contact with China in 1972 he sought its help to end the war in Vietnam and counterbalance Soviet power. But in seeking those laudable goals he went too far -- he agreed to oppose independence for Taiwan, a position supported by all subsequent U.S. presidents. Now the Vietnam War is long over, no thanks to China, and the Soviet Union has collapsed. The main reasons Nixon tilted toward Beijing no longer exist.

China no longer helps contain a dangerous Soviet empire. Instead, Moscow and Beijing now conspire to contain the U.S. Today, the main threat to peace is China, modernizing its military, seizing disputed islands in the South China Sea, crushing dissent in Tibet, Xinjiang, and elsewhere and even threatening war.

The U.S.S.R. was considered the last colonial empire, but now China, suppressing Tibet and a slew of ethnic minorities, and already reneging on its commitments to Hong Kong, has inherited that title. Beijing may have loosened controls on its economy, but it remains a Leninist state that tolerates no opposition, even the peaceful assembly of the Falun Gong, whose members recently were dispatched to Marxist re-education camps.

It is important to remember what China's rulers really want. The communists are determined to complete their 70-year-old struggle to conquer all of China. Their intransigence leaves only two possible outcomes: Either they crush Taiwan democracy or are forced from power themselves. For 27 years, no U.S. government has been willing to face this reality. It is time one did.

The next president should follow the formula that worked against the Soviets -- contain Chinese expansion, help Taiwan defend itself against aggression, support democracy on Taiwan and democracy advocates in China, and side with Taiwan when and if its people declare their independence.

While we wait for a new U.S. president to change policy toward China, Congress can take action by passing the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would re-establish U.S.-Taiwan military relations and authorize sale of the advanced weapons Taiwan needs to defend itself. The Clinton White House and Republicans who put exports to China above all else are trying frantically to block or water down that legislation. But if it passes largely intact, it will send a warning to Beijing that could prevent a major crisis next year.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.


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