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Who's Really Being Provocative?

Taiwan News

Taipei, 19 January 2000

Holmes Liao, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Division of Strategic and International Studies, Taiwan Research Institute

Matt Salmon, a U.S. Congressman of the International Relations Committee and its Asia and the Pacific subcommittee, on his visit to Taipei this week, warned Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui should be "extremely cautious in selecting rhetoric." In a meeting with President Lee on January 17, the congressmen asked Lee to refrain from "provocative remarks" that may trigger an over-reaction from China.

Taiwan is a peace-loving country. A simple review will find out who's really been provocative. In 1996, China instigated a crisis by "test-launching" its M-9 missiles against Taiwan and conducting a series of amphibious assault maneuvers aimed at disrupting the country's first presidential election. After consultations with China, then U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry recommended the deployment of elements from the Seventh Fleet to the waters near Taiwan, as diplomacy had failed and preventive defense was called for.

Last July, China officially confirmed it had developed the neutron bomb. In an act to demonstrate the notion that China dictates Taiwan's sovereignty, China seized a Taiwanese cargo ship near Matzu and accused its crew of "smuggling." On August 2, 1999, China tested a long-range Dongfeng 31 long-range ballistic missile, with range designed to reach the continental United States.

Through Hong Kong's media, Beijing also spread rumors about military exercises and submarine deployment intended to intimidate Taiwan. By mid-August, talks of a planned military attack on some of the Taiwan-held islands were starting to circulate, presumably to take place after the October 1, 1999 celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the PRC.

Even before the latest crisis brought about by President Lee's "special state-to-state" statement, many security analysts in the world believed that cross-Strait relations would pose a significant challenge to the regional security. According to a survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. last year, analysts consider three of the top five security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region directly involve the People's Republic of China.

Immediately after President Lee's "nation-to-nation relations" remarks, Beijing launched an intimidation campaign against Taiwan. Chinese officials accused Taiwan of steering towards a "monumental disaster" and even warned the island will face "calamity." Across the Pacific, some US academics echoed the Chinese assertion that Mr. Lee's statements were "provocative." Various other American officials, civil and military, have joined the confused chorus, attacking Taiwan's leadership on and off the record as if he was the one fomenting war.

On the contrary, President Lee simply stated the basic fact that Taiwan and China are two separate states, and that they should coexist in peace next to each other. According to a survey, more than 77% of Taiwanese stood behind President Lee's statement. In the course to seek international recognition of its de facto sovereignty, Taiwan has never been "provocative." As the Boston Herald said in an editorial on 14 July 1999: "There is nothing provocative in a recognition of reality."

All large nations are big precisely because they have been military expansionists, whether it's the U.S.A., Russia, or China. One reason China has so many border disputes with its neighbors is because of its insistence on holding all imperial conquests from the Qing Dynasty. The sentimental insistence is aggravated by the fact that China is a dictatorial regime and its nationalist military old-guards frequently become decision-makers. China's increasing propensity to bully its neighbors, including Taiwan, is causing deep concern in East Asia.

Koichi Kato, then Secretary-General of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, stated in July 1998 that China's goal was to be equally powerful as the U.S. and worried that China would use force in the region to achieve its goal.

Military contingency in the Taiwan Strait poses a dilemma to the U.S. On one hand, the U.S., by engaging China, hopes to integrate the country to the world economy and to transform it into a responsible actor. On the other hand, the U.S. remains committed to peace and security in the region. An outbreak of war in the Taiwan Strait will not only disrupt the flourishing economy in which the U.S. plays a vital role, but also draw the U.S. into a head-on confrontation with China.

Therefore, the U.S. "strategic ambiguity" policy seeks to discourage Taiwan from unilateral declaration of independence, while at the same time, render enough gray area to deter China's aggression. Nevertheless, some U.S. policymakers have stated that the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan against an attack may be revoked if Taiwan "provokes" such an attack. This is an illogical deterrence posture.

China, with its growing military capabilities and a sense of urgency to unify Taiwan, may create or look for loopholes in such an ambiguous commitment. If PLA launches an invasion, the geopolitical consequences for the U.S. in the region are the same no matter how the crisis originated. To punish Taiwan's "provocation" by insinuating consent to the country's destruction is far from exemplary to U.S. allies in the region.

Though the U.S. may retain its ambiguous position on the cross-Strait relationship, the U.S. response to any attempt by China to use military force against Taiwan cannot be ambiguous. Washington must demonstrate that it has the will, not just the might, to deter future Chinese aggression against Taiwan.