Wall Street Journal: "Stand Firm on Taiwan"


The Asian Wall Street Journal, Friday-Saturday Edition, Feb. 20/21, 1998

U.S. President Bill Clinton is planning a trip to China later this year to help strengthen a key relationship that has vastly improved over the past 12 months. But if he wants to make further headway, Mr. Clinton must be frank with Beijing about an always sensitive issue: Taiwan. Now is the time to deal with question. As the present standoff with Iraq makes clear, an ounce or prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

American academics and officials who have had recent meetings with Chinese counterparts to pave the way for the summit say Beijing is eager to quickly reverse what China regards as Taiwan's momentum toward de facto independence. This past weekend, for example, Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party announced after a meeting to evaluate China policy that most members not only still insist that Taiwan is independent, but also refuse to make concessions to Beijing on sovereignty. The DPP is not a majority party and some of its top officials have called for closer relations with Beijing. Yet its very existence is a thorn in the side of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who seeks to leave his mark on history by moving on the Taiwan issue following the handover on of Hong Kong.

Notwithstanding China's nervous eagerness and the very real U.S. interest in getting along with the world's most populous country. Washington must not make placating Beijing its first priority, as it appears now to be doing. This would amount to abandoning a fellow democracy, an act that would send a chilling signal to U. S. allies in the region. It also would fail to build the right foundations for Sino-U.S. relations for years to come.

From the U.S. perspective, there is a whole host of issues to tackle with Beijing. China's human rights violations, its subjugation of Tibet and its trade protectionism all share the stage with Taiwan as irritants in the relationship. U.S. officials may want to convey to China that Washington too has priorities.

In Beijing's mind, however, no other issue even comes close to the importance of bringing Taiwan into the fold.

The Chinese government pays very little heed to what others have to say about its treatment of dissidents or of Tibetans. With regard to Taiwan, however, China claims that the U.S. is directly responsible for the island's refusal to discuss reunification and its daring to even broach the subject of independence. Beijing believes that if Washington terminated weapons sales to Taiwan and stated clearly that it would not defend Taiwan against a Chinese attach, we would hear no more talk in Taiwan of any kind of independence.

There are disturbing signs that Mr. Clinton is listening much more sympathetically than he should to Beijing's story. Two former senior Pentagon officials traveled to Taipei in recent months, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili. They are said to have carried the message to Taiwan's leaders: Taipei cannot count on U.S. cover against Chinese attack if it declares independence and it should start negotiations with China. The second point, in particular, would appear to be a contravention of one of the "six Assurances" that Washington gave Taipei in 1992 - that it would not push the island to the negotiation table with China.

What the U.S. should be saying to Beijing is something quite different. It should point out that the ability of the Taiwanese to debate freely their relationship with the mainland, and to elect leaders who agree with their positions, is after all a direct result of the island's rapid democratization in recent years. The U.S., which makes support for democracy the hallmark of its foreign policy is hardly in a position to tell the Taiwanese that they cannot elect the politicians of their choice.

U.S. officials, and Mr. Clinton himself when he meets Mr. Jiang, should reiterate the U.S. position that cross-Strait relations are the business of the two sides, and that the U.S. will not tolerate Chinese aggression against Taiwan. The Beijing regime could make a better impression if it abandoned assertions of a "right" to control Taiwan and accepted Taiwan's democratic process, making its arguments for reunification in public forums and keeping its threatening missiles sheathed.

It is of course unlikely that the Taiwanese will be persuaded to any degree by China's message until China itself has made great headway in modernizing it own political system. Privately, individual Chinese concede that the Chinese government already understand this. All the more reason for Mr. Clinton to underline this reality before and durning his visit to Beijing.

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