Dealing with China for the long haul

Arming Taiwan: Firm policies and engagement should not be derailed by one incident.

April 23, 2001

GETTING relations with China right will preoccupy the Bush administration for years. It is not a subject to be wrapped up in a week.

Why? China has 1.2 billion people. Its economy grew at an 8.1 percent annual rate in the first quarter while much of the world stagnated. Enough said.

The technical talks about the April 1 plane collision, return of the U.S. EP-3E and safety rules for future flights got off to a rough start. That is not directly related to more basic relations, but cannot fail to set a mood.

Contradictorily, President Bush named an ambassador to Beijing who seems right for other times. Clark Randt Jr. is a lawyer engaged in promoting investment between the United States and China. That is an important part of the relationship but not what's on the front burner.

The next key decision the administration must make is what weapons to sell Taiwan. The island's wish list includes destroyers equipped with radar for missile defense, diesel submarines and submarine-hunting planes.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the administration is obliged to authorize sales of weapons Taiwan needs to defend itself. The discretion allowed is in deciding what they are.

Beijing is using the EP-3E incident to argue against all such sales as hegemonic and threatening to China's sovereignty. Quite the reverse is true.

The law and arms sales have promoted stability for 21 years, during which Taiwan has provided a model of economic development while exchanging dictatorship for democracy. A confident Taiwan allowed its citizens to trade and invest on the mainland, making the two parts of China economically interdependent.

This law does not give Taiwan a blank check on U.S. support for a declaration of independence. U.S. and Taiwanese policy remain wedded to the principles that Taiwan is part of China and that its future must be determined by peaceful, democratic means.

A decision to sell Taiwan most of its wish list, except Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, would send the right messages of firmness and resolve to both China and Taiwan.

Beijing is bellicose against this. It also tried to intimidate Japan into banning Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui's visit to Tokyo for medical attention. It is claiming the South China Sea as a Chinese lake despite competing claims of Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

The Communist regime has made war on Vietnam and India, had friction with Russia and Japan, arrested overseas Chinese it encouraged to visit, and suppressed cults based on ancient Chinese teachings.

Calm resolve is required to restrain this belligerent, ultra-nationalist and paranoid streak. The Bush administration should neither be intimidated nor hot-headed after the EP-3E incident.

It should make policy coolly to achieve long-term stability with this Chinese regime and with its eventual successor. That applies to arms sales as well as permanent normal trade relations, Beijing's application to play host to the 2008 Olympics and dialogue on human rights. China will always be there.

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