Kansas City Star

Firmer U.S. approach needed on Taiwan

Editorial 8.06.99

Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui unsettled world capitals recently with his statement that relations with Beijing should proceed on a "state-to-state" basis. It was an announcement viewed in Beijing, which considers Taiwan as a renegade province, as a move toward independence.

While Lee's statement hardly precludes Taiwan's peaceful reunification with China, it is a new and complicating factor for policymakers. Washington has reiterated that both sides should resolve their differences peacefully.

The Clinton administration, however, has added to the instability by encouraging Beijing to believe the United States might waver in its commitment to defend Taiwan.

Last year President Clinton even endorsed China's "three no's" policy: No backing for any two-China concept, no independence for Taiwan, no membership for Taiwan in any grouping of sovereign states. Boil this down, and it suggests the United States agrees with Beijing that Taiwan should have no say in its own future.

Previous U.S. policy was more ambiguous: Only one China exists, but Taiwan and Beijing should settle their differences peacefully. Beijing will no doubt recall the administration's deployment of aircraft carriers to the area in 1996, when the Chinese were having fits and lobbing missiles into the sea near Taiwan.

That memory, however, would be more vivid if the administration would stop leaning so heavily in Beijing's direction. Washington should make it clear that it has no intention of abandoning its military commitment to Taiwan. Fear of how U.S. forces might react should continue to exercise a restraining influence on Chinese policy.