Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Chinese puzzle -- What would Ronald Reagan do?

Editorial 8.25.99

Whoever located the U.S. State Department in Foggy Bottom had a natural feel for symbolism. Uncertain about what to do about the two Chinas except to keep insisting on the fiction that there is only one, this country's diplomatic establishment is in its usual dither. That is, it's following our secretary of state's wobbly lead. Madeleine Albright may be as lackluster as her predecessor, ol' what's-his-name, but she's very forceful about it. Now she's giving off conflicting signals like a traffic light stuck on red, yellow, and green.

Not since Dean Acheson put South Korea outside the American "defensive perimeter" has the State Department given a potential aggressor so clear an invitation. And the Pentagon has done its part by calling off a military mission to Taiwan. It, too, seems resolved to be irresolute. Various other American officials, civil and military, have joined the confused chorus, attacking Taiwan's leaders on and off the record as if they were the ones fomenting war. No wonder the Communists on the mainland talk openly of using military force against the last redoubt of Chinese freedom. What's this administration going to do about it--issue another position paper?

Washington's policy is to have no policy, hoping that generous amounts of verbal fog will keep the peace. Here's today's equivocation: The United States would clearly view an attack on Taiwan as a matter of "grave concern," while Washington just as clearly disapproves of Taiwan's acting like a free country or, far worse, talking like one. Which is what Taiwan's president has been doing. And the Clinton administration is not about to forgive him for it.

Trade replaced freedom as the lodestar of American foreign policy in Asia sometime during the Bush administration. After all, George Bush was the American ambassador to Communist China for a time, and ambassadors have a way of going native. Sometimes they wind up representing their hosts to their home country. It's a natural human tendency; we're social animals. But not till now has an American administration begun to treat any talk of freedom and independence from the other China, our old ally, as grounds for abandonment.

It's not so much that Washington's policy invites war. Rather its lack of a policy does. Unfortunately, ambiguity has been the clearest route to catastrophe at least since Europe fell into the First World War in an absence of mind. Or at least an absence of any clear idea of the calamity the great powers were inviting by their vague and combustible network of open- ended treaties, ententes, understandings, and winks and nods. Which could be a description of Foggy Bottom's policy toward the two Chinas today.

No one is quite sure what Washington would do if, lest we forget, a still Red China fired a few missiles over Taiwan as it has a done before, or blockaded the island's ports, or just occupied a smaller island or two off the mainland, like Quemoy and Matsu. Once upon a time (the 1950s) such overt acts of aggression would have been recognized for what they were. Now they might merit only a polite protest. Which may be why Beijing is tempted to bite off what it can. Such is the instinct of aggressors. They'll take what they can if there's a chance they can get away with it. And it's easy to see how Washington's non- policy, when translated into Chinese, might sound like: Come and Get It. And there goes another little bastion of freedom.

This has happened before. (So many things have in history.) Back in 1980, it wasn't the president of Taiwan who was asking that his island nation be treated as a state of its own, but an American presidential candidate with a way of putting things plain. Ronald Reagan's statements may have deterred the aggressor, but they disturbed the kind of politicians who make a career of ambiguity. So it was only natural for Mr. Reagan to mention in his always offhand way that, in his administration, Taiwan would have an official relationship with the United States. (He instinctively favored the free.)

Immediately, his running mate, the experienced and sophisticated George Bush, stepped in to explain that of course Mr. Reagan hadn't meant what he'd said. But of course he had, and Beijing got the message. Or at least it behaved itself once Ronald Reagan became the next president of the United States. Mr. Reagan's principles in foreign affairs may not have been sophisticated, but they had the great advantage of being right. Condoleeza Rice, who may be the next American secretary of state in the next Bush administration, said it: Ronald Reagan was a John Foster Dulles whose time finally came. The Soviet sphere was rolled back so far that there wasn't a Soviet Union left--a fundamental change in international relations that is still benefiting the whole world.

Mr. Reagan's all too exact description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" put that evil empire on notice that it would be treated as just that, rather than--to use Madeleine Albright's description of Communist China--a Strategic Partner with whom we have a Constructive Engagement. Didn't appeasers use to be less verbose? At least Neville Chamberlain didn't take refuge in long-winded euphemisms. (''Peace in Our Time," he proclaimed, which turned out to be a recipe for war in a year.)

There is much to be said for giving aggressors clear notice that they will be treated as aggressors, rather than poor, misunderstood nations who only want to take over their immediate neighbors. Calling aggression by its right name may prevent it. Going wobbly may only encourage it.

There is a lesson and a warning in all this from the Reagan Years, if this administration is still educable: If Taiwan is not to become the next Tibet, it needs to be made clear that any violence against Taiwan would be met not with diplomatic indulgence, but military force. When it comes to preserving the peace, Grave Concern is no substitute for the Sixth Fleet.