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"The U.S. has never recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, whether claimed by Beijing or by Chiang Kai-shek"
The Fifth Column

Don't Let Taiwan Down

By Arthur Waldron

The writer is the Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, and a director of Freedom House and of the Jamestown Foundation


Issue cover-dated May 13, 2004

The muddle that increasingly characterizes Bush administration statements about China and Taiwan was clear on April 21 2004, when James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, testifying before Congress, joined the official chorus opposing "Taiwan independence." Kelly stated that efforts by Taiwan to assert its own independent national identity "must be stopped." These are strong words, particularly compared with what he said about China. Of Beijing's threats to use force, he simply noted that "we strongly disagree with the approach."

We are seeing the beginning of the collapse of a faulty and destabilizing framework of relations created, in a huge gamble, by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Carter evidently believed his breaking of all official American relations with Taiwan would prove fatal for the Taipei government, at that time composed mostly of refugees from China. After a decent interval, so it was imagined, those refugees would reach over the heads of the people of Taiwan and make a deal with Beijing?rendering moot the vexed issue of Taiwan's status. Or, as Carter's communiqué blandly put it, ". . . the United States expects that the Taiwan issue will be settled peacefully by the Chinese themselves."

But Taiwan did not cave in as planned; it democratized and made its government far more legitimate than that of China, a development Washington had never even considered. Nor did China adhere for long to the promise that its "fundamental" policy towards Taiwan was peaceful. Now it has hundreds of missiles targeting the island (one for every 45,0000 Taiwanese), and its growing military capacity and threats are shaking traditional U.S. complacency. Officials in the American Institute in Taiwan, the U.S.'s de facto embassy, are said to have warned visitors that there will be war over Taiwan next year.

As they attempt to digest the sudden shift from visions of "peaceful settlement" to auguries of imminent war, observers should bear in mind a few often neglected points. Most important is that the U. S. has never recognized Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, whether claimed by Beijing or by Chiang Kai?shek. Washington's position, reiterated regularly, if quietly, for 50 years, is that the status of Taiwan under international law remains to be determined.

Henry Kissinger understood this. Preparing for negotiations in the early 1970s, he told his colleagues: "If Taiwan is recognized by us as part of China, then it may become irresistible for them. Our saying we want a peaceful solution has no force. It is Chinese territory. What are we going to do about it?" Thus, the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué prudently avoided any recognition of Chinese sovereignty, and official documents since have followed suit which raises the question: If the U.S. does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, how can the U.S. oppose its "independence"? Independence from what?

Then there's the "One-China policy," which entered the lexicon through a poorly drafted letter to Beijing from a high Clinton administration official. But here again, words don't mean what they seem. "One China" does not mean Taiwan belongs to China. It means that though the U.S. did recognize two German governments, it chooses to recognize only one Chinese government at a time.

What to do? Washington is genuinely frightened by Chinese threats, and some there are succumbing to the "Munich temptation" ? as when during the 1938 Czechoslovakia crisis, blame was put on President Edvard Benes when someone else more intimidating but less malleable was driving the threats. Today's Benes is Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. Some even imagine, as with Benes, that browbeating Chen to yield will buy peace. But that would be a terrible error. We must maintain robust deterrence on Taiwan's behalf; making clear that no use of force by China will be tolerated.

That said, it is time to recognize that the dream of 30 years ago, that China and Taiwan would peacefully unite, is "unlikely" (as a future ambassador, William Gleysteen, Jr., put it at the meeting with Kissinger mentioned above, while another future ambassador, Arthur Hummel, added, "Down the road, perhaps the only solution would be an independent Taiwan").

Today, Washington's plan seems to be somehow to put things in Taiwan back the way they were when the gamble was made. But this is impossible. Change is constant and managing it is the test of statesmanship. China is in radical flux. The people of Taiwan now have a voice that cannot be ignored or silenced. For the world, continuing the attempt to cling to an outmoded diplomatic framework will be futile.