February 23, 2000
ISSUE of China's claim to Taiwan, the Clinton administration,
like its predecessors, has pursued a policy of "strategic
ambiguity." The United States will provide the increasingly
democratic island just enough political and military support
to deter China from taking the island by force; but it will
not provide so much that Taiwan's leaders feel emboldened
to declare independence, which could provoke China to start
a war that would almost certainly involve American forces.
grows less tenable as Taiwan gets more and more democratic
and China remains a dictatorship. Most Taiwanese understandably
don't want to be swallowed by a repressive state, and unlike
in the past--when Taiwan was governed by dictators of its
own--their views on independence shape national policy. Now
China has further weakened the rationale for the U.S. policy
of ambiguity. Until now, the United States could fairly argue
that Taiwan wasn't suffering much from Chinese threats--and
that as long as it refrained from declaring independence,
it knew it would be safe. But China has just issued a "white
paper" threatening to attack Taiwan not only if it declares
independence but also if, in China's judgment, the island's
leaders drag their feet in reunification negotiations; and
China alone reserves the right to decide how long is too long.
This new Chinese rhetoric is preferable to its 1996 firing
of nuclear-capable missiles into the sea near Taiwan, prompting
the defensive dispatch of two U.S. aircraft carriers. But
that's the best you can say for it.
new threat, like its 1996 military "exercise," was intended
partly to influence a Taiwanese presidential election. It
also may have been meant to shore up President Jiang Zemin's
flagging status among hard-liners and to underscore China's
opposition to the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, a proposal
to increase U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation that has passed
the U.S. House.
Chinese declaration also provides a window on that country's
priorities. It was issued only hours after a high-level U.S.
delegation in Beijing finished pleading for restraint on the
subject of Taiwan. It could complicate administration efforts
to win congressional support for China's entry into the World
Trade Organization, as its bullying posture calls into doubt
its willingness to live by international rules. None of this
deters the regime from making threats.
has in the past bent pretty far to China's wishes. The House
was prompted to write the Taiwan bill in part because of President
Clinton's public accession, in China, to Beijing's three key
demands regarding Taiwan's status. The U.S. response to China's
latest challenge should be shaped, at a minimum, by the need
not to say or do anything that China could present to the
next administration as U.S. acquiescence in its new policy.
Strategic ambiguity does, at times, have its uses; this is
a moment for strategic clarity.