Unique relationship with an ally

Sun Journal

Taiwan: While the United States has stood by the island, tensions have sometimes developed over U.S. dealings with China.

March 18, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI -- Like his homeland, Johnny Y. C. Huang was jilted by the United States two decades ago. After 11 years running the local purchasing store for the U.S. Air Force here, he lost his job when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

"The American government in 1979 abandoned me, because it had a legal wife in China," says Huang, 49, who is still fond of the United States, but likens the tangled ties between China, Taiwan and America to a love triangle.

Of the United States' many relationships abroad, none is quite like the one it maintains with this island of more than 22 million people off the coast of China. Nowhere else has the world's most powerful nation pledged to defend another land that it doesn't recognize diplomatically. And it is hard to think of another place today where Washington courts a brutish, authoritarian regime at the expense of a longtime ally that has blossomed into one of the world's most enthusiastic young democracies.

The unique relationship has come into relief again in recent weeks as Beijing stepped up threats to attack Taiwan in advance of today's presidential election. China has viewed the island as a renegade province since Nationalist troops fled there more than 50 years ago at the end of the Chinese civil war.

The Communist Party has vowed to take Taiwan back by force, if necessary. Wednesday, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warned Taiwanese not to vote for Chen Shui-bian, the nominee of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which supports independence from the mainland. Zhu said China was ready to "shed blood" to prevent Taiwan from breaking away.

While troubling, the threat rings hollow for the moment. Most analysts say the People's Liberation Army is years away from being able to mount a sustained assault. The United States has issued stern warnings against an attack and said any solution to the Taiwan question must enjoy popular support on the island.

The relationship between the United States and Taiwan's Nationalist government has been a roller coaster since the 1920s, when America first supported the government of all China, headed by Chiang Kai-shek. What united them was shared distaste for Mao Tse-tung's communists.

It also helped that Chiang's Christian background appealed to many Americans, as did his wife, Madame Chiang, who addressed Congress and conducted a grand lobbying tour of the United States on her husband's behalf. That America used to support Chiang, a dictator, but now does not recognize democratic Taiwan, still strikes some here as a cruel twist.

In 1949, Chiang and his troops fled in defeat to Taiwan, where they established the Republic of China. The United States stationed more than 10,000 troops on the island and defended it during shelling attacks from the mainland as well as garrisoning it during the Korean War.

It is easy to understand China's security concerns about Taiwan, which lies 100 miles off its southern coast. Armed with high-tech weaponry purchased from the United States, it can become an "unsinkable aircraft carrier," as Chinese Premier Zhu noted earlier this week.

The United States maintained relations with Taiwan for three decades after the civil war, but political reality eventually dictated that Washington recognize China, home to a potential market of more than 1 billion people -- as well as a possessor of nuclear weapons. Relations between Taipei and the United States bottomed out in 1979, when Washington sent word that it was dumping Taiwan hours before a public announcement.

Then Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo learned of the move in a 2: 30 a.m. phone call from the U.S. ambassador. When the deputy secretary of state, Warren Christopher, flew to Taipei to try to console leaders, Taiwanese greeted his car with tomatoes and rocks.

"It's a very cynical process," acknowledges James R. Lilley, ambassador to Beijing from 1989 to 1991, who nonetheless supported the decision. "You had to do it, but it was done badly."

Concerned about Taiwan's safety and worried about the message abandonment might send to other allies, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which guaranteed defensive arms sales to the island, now amounting to $7 to $10 billion worth of weapons each year. The measure included a deliberately ambiguous statement that the United States would view any military action against Taiwan with "grave concern."

Under what circumstances the United States would go to war over the island remains vague by design. Congressional leaders worried that a clear defense pledge might encourage Taiwan to provoke China into battle. Nebulous wording was also chosen to keep Beijing guessing.

The United States takes the pledge seriously. The last time Taiwan held presidential elections in 1996, China tried to intimidate voters by firing missiles toward the island. President Clinton responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.

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