The stakes for China if it attacks Taiwan

March 18, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The principle at issue in the Taiwan Straits is not China's unity, as Beijing maintains. That has been settled. The Western powers and China's Asian neighbors all formally accept that Taiwan is part of China.

The principle at stake, for China, is the threat of democracy. For the rest of the world the principle is that of the acceptability of war as a means for addressing the internal conflicts of nations.

Taiwan's present autonomy is a product of modern Chinese history. The problem it creates for China is open to eventual peaceful resolution, depending upon the political evolution of China itself, as well as that of the Taiwan government and electorate.

The United States, and the international community, failed to defend the principle that military aggression or attack is unacceptable in dealing with regional and ethnic tensions in both the Yugoslav case and when Russia attacked Chechnya because of its declaration of national autonomy. This time, in the Taiwan Straits, there is time and reason to do what the leading democracies failed to do in the past.

Taiwan's readiness

This does not mean that the United States Navy should intervene if China attempts to seize islands defended by the Taiwan authorities, or even attacks Taiwan itself although the possibility of American intervention should certainly be kept open both in government statements and in Washington policy deliberations. However, Taiwan is heavily armed, and presumably capable of looking after itself in foreseeable circumstances.

Americans and the Western powers, and China's Asian neighbors, have until now warned in anodyne terms that Chinese military action against Taiwan would set back China's economic development and complicate its international relations. The Chinese authorities have heard all that before in connection with domestic repression, and have learned to ignore it.

China, instead, should be given specific warnings about the economic and political consequences of an attack on Taiwan. China should be threatened with international sanctions and the possibility of an international embargo both on inward investment and on China's exports.

China is vulnerable. Its economic development is not internally generated. Nearly all of it depends on foreign funds. China currently absorbs some 30 percent of the world's total trans-border investment. It is the world's second food importer, after Japan. There have been food shortages in provincial China, and unrest. Any disruption of China's economic dependence on the outside world could have dramatic political consequences.

However, China's leadership has been given cause to believe that the United States in particular and the international community in general would never impose serious penalties on China. It assumes that the fixation of governments and international business on China's potential consumer markets will, as in the past, protect it from being seriously inconvenienced for anything it does.

China's leaders have drawn this lesson from the feeble American and international reactions to their past suppression of internal dissidence and democratic initiatives, and from the West's apparent indifference to Beijing's clearly signaled intention to disregard its commitment to respect Hong Kong's political tradition and conduct a policy there of ''one country, two systems.''

The present government in Beijing is playing the card of nationalism in response not only to Taiwan's democratic elections, which take place next week, and Taiwan's diplomatic initiatives, but to disintegrative political tensions inside mainland China.

There is regionalist discontent, resentment of the huge discrepancies between the prosperity of coastal China and that of interior provinces, and popular disaffection over mismanagement and corruption. The nationalist drum is pounded as the annual session of the Peoples' National Assembly takes place.

Ruler of all China

Until now, Taiwan has never challenged the proposition that it is part of China. Quite the contrary. Its government claimed for many years to itself be the legitimate government of all China, and the Communist regime a usurper. The Taiwan government is legatee of Chiang Kai-shek, effectively dictator of China from the late 1920s until his government's defeat by the Communists in 1949, when it took refuge on Taiwan.

By its descent from that Kuomintang government, the present ** Taiwan authorities can claim legitimate succession to the Chinese revolution of 1911, and to the republic established in 1912 by Chiang's predecessor, the Hawaiian-educated Christian, Sun Yat-sen the man who first attempted to implant democracy in China.

During the 84 years since Sun Yat-sen's republic, China has experienced national breakdown, domination by regional warlords, the struggle of Chiang's Kuomintang party with the Communists, invasion by Japan, a pitiless triangular wartime struggle which was civil war as well as war against Japan, and afterward the horrendous and grossly murderous upheavals of Mao Tse-tung's ''great leap forward'' and ''cultural revolution.''

There was no democracy. Not until now, in Taiwan. That, of course, is what really lies behind the Beijing authorities' concern about Taiwan. The issue of Taiwanese independence is fundamentally the issue of whether the Taiwanese can determine their own future.

If they can do that, why not everyone else in China? The Taiwan question is an ''internal'' issue for China in a far more profound sense than until now has been generally recognized.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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