U.S. not the good friend Taiwan thought it had

July 26, 1999|By Philip Terzian

WASHINGTON -- A few years ago, the Clinton administration gave permission for Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University, in upstate New York. Predictably, the People's Republic of China had a fit.

By admitting Mr. Lee to these shores, Beijing complained, the United States implicitly recognized that he was a citizen of a sovereign state -- Taiwan -- which the People's Republic claims as its own. To make its point, the Chinese fired ballistic missiles into the sea near Taiwan. The United States responded by dispatching some naval vessels, and in time the crisis cooled down.

Recently, President Lee was at it again. In an interview with a German radio station, he declared that his government would negotiate with the People's Republic as one sovereign state to another.

But late last week, under U.S. diplomatic pressure and military threat from China, Taiwan backed away from renouncing the "one China" policy. The government of the self-ruled island still insisted that China treat Taiwan as an equal in future negotiations, rather than seeing the two countries as parts that will eventually be reunited. This was the equivalent of waving a red flag, so to speak, in Beijing's face. It is not entirely clear whether Mr. Lee meant for his remarks to inspire the reaction that followed -- there are elections this fall in Taiwan -- but he could not have been surprised.

What might have surprised Mr. Lee was the reaction of the U.S. government: While we didn't threaten Taiwan with annihilation, as our strategic partners in Beijing did, we nevertheless made it clear that his remarks were immensely unhelpful.

Since then, the White House, the State Department and think-tankers have had something like a collective nervous breakdown: By exploding the myth of one China, Mr. Lee caused unnecessary tension, aggravated old wounds, threw sand in the works of multilateral relations, and so on.

Moreover, if the words of State Department spokesman James Rubin are anything to go by (always a risky presumption), it is not at all evident that the United States would defend Taiwan against Chinese attack.

A little background is in order. When Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung issued the famous Shanghai Communique in 1972, it was understood by the United States that both sides in any disputes over the status of Taiwan recognized but one China in the world, not two.

Since the United States was anxious to recruit the People's Republic in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, we accepted this "strategic ambiguity" as a device to defer final judgment about the status of Taiwan. And in the context of the Cold War, it worked.

But that was then. Now China, not the Soviet Union, is the primary strategic threat to the United States. And just as we wrestled with issues of brinksmanship and detente with the Russians, so we now debate the tone and tenor of relations with the Chinese.

The Clinton administration, for various reasons, has chosen to gloss over the fact that, while China is the world's most populous country, a trading partner and the dominant power in Asia, it is also a police state that has murdered tens of millions of its citizens. Also, it is a military threat to its neighbors and, in all likelihood, to us as well.

While it is diplomatic to persist in the one China myth, it is realistic to acknowledge what Mr. Lee has said. The fact is that, by any measure, Taiwan is a sovereign state with its own democratic government, self-defense forces and thriving economy.

The people of Taiwan regard themselves as Chinese, and no doubt wish to unite someday with the mainland -- but with a democratic mainland. Since 1949, the United States has pledged itself to defend Taiwan against aggression from Communist China.

Are we prepared to defend democratic Taiwan against an invasion by Communist China?

A better question might be: What are the costs of not defending Taiwan -- and not just to Taiwan, but to our allies in Asia, and to ourselves?

Philip Terzian is the associate editor of the Providence Journal.

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