U.S.-China ties have new armed dimension Military tensionsare unlikely to end for some time

March 20, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Ian Johnson of The Sun's Foreign Staff contributed to this article from Taipei.

WASHINGTON -- Military tension in the Western Pacific may be the shape of things to come in America's relations with an increasingly truculent China.

Taiwan's in-your-face challenge to the mainland dictatorship won't end with Saturday's election, some analysts and commentators say, since the very practice of democracy poses a continuing threat to the aging Communist regime in Beijing.

And in sending two aircraft carrier task forces to respond to China's psychological warfare, President Clinton has staked out a clearer, more forceful policy of defending Taiwan than any president since Washington and Beijing opened relations.

"There seems to be an attitude that after the election, after the missile tests, things will go back to normalcy," says Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

This won't happen, he says. "The old status quo is over. This [Taiwan's] is the first Chinese democracy in 4,000 years. This is a more powerful force for political change in China than all the U.S. congressional resolutions."

Yesterday, the new status loomed menacingly.

Washington and Beijing combined military saber-rattling with verbal blows, all but obscuring the fact that the two powers were trying to maintain high-level contact by scheduling a meeting April 21 between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.

Stepping up war games aimed at Taiwan, China blasted the United States for what it called a "brazen show of force" in the region. For its part, Defense Secretary William J. Perry warned China that the United States "has the best damned Navy in the world" and could sail the Taiwan Strait if it so chose.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese officials asked the United States for diesel-powered submarines to modernize a military force that already is being bolstered by new U.S. F-16 jet fighters.

For more than two decades after President Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger forged an opening to China with the Shanghai Communique of 1972, Washington and Beijing agreed to talk past one another on the subject of Taiwan an island province occupied by the Nationalist government that fled China after the Communist victory in 1949.

China declared in the communique that Taiwan was an "internal affair in which no other country has the right to interfere," and refused even to accept that the status of Taiwan was an open question.

In breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1978, the United States glossed over its continuing American military ties to the island, saying that it would maintain "commercial, cultural and other relations," while diplomatic recognition was transferred from the exile government in Taiwan to Beijing.

For Beijing, the guiding principles of U.S.-China relations were spelled out in the three communiques signed by the two countries in 1972, 1978 and 1982. But for Washington, and particularly Congress, the Taiwan Relations Act was an equally important pillar of the relationship. For many Republicans in Congress, it's the most important.

That law warns not very obliquely that Taiwan's security is an important U.S. interest, saying "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes [is] a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States."

And contrary to a communique indicating that the United States would reduce arms sales to Taiwan over time, the law says that the U.S. would make sure that Taiwan is able to defend itself.

None of this made much difference so long as the Taiwan Strait remained relatively calm. Indeed, even during a period of growing friction between the Clinton administration and China over human rights, copyright privacy and sale of nuclear and missile technology to such countries as Iran and Pakistan, Taiwan remained a side issue.

But when Taiwan began moving away from dictatorship toward democracy and began winning friends and influencing people around the world, Beijing reacted with fury, lobbing a major security challenge into Bill Clinton's lap.

Suddenly, the action clauses in the Taiwan Relations Act became important, and Taiwan's many friends on Capitol Hill made sure the administration recognized it.

The president's critics say he paved the way for the current crisis by failing to get tough with China on human rights, trade or weapons proliferation issues.

Even though the United States retained 100,000 troops in Asia to register the Pacific region's importance to its interests, Mr. Clinton needed to respond to China with an extra display of weaponry.

"Over the last several years, we've been bluffing," said Douglas Paal, who was an adviser on Asia policy to former President George Bush. "We've made a lot of threats and we haven't carried through."

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