Taiwan Communiqué No. 90, March 2000

White paper, dark threats

On Monday, February 21st 2000 the Chinese Cabinet issued a new "white paper" in which it made renewed threats of war. To underscore the threats, Chinese President Jiang Zemin reportedly was visiting southern China, "…touring military bases that would contribute to any invasion force of the island."

Ironically, the war threats came just a couple of days after the departure of a top-level American delegation from Beijing, which ended with the Americans saying that the bilateral relations between the US and China were getting "back on track." The "white paper" is thus an in-your-face insult to the United States, which has been emphasizing a peaceful resolution to the differences between China and Taiwan.

The policy paper added yet another item to the long list of Taiwanese "provocations" which would lead to a war by China. In addition to the known items _ such as if the people of Taiwan want to maintain their freedom and independence, and "foreign meddling" — the Chinese have now specified "foot-dragging" and refusal to move towards "unification" as a reason for military action.

To anyone not steeped in the muddled thinking of Beijing, this looks like a gun against the head of a democratic Taiwan: "negotiate to surrender yourself, or else…". In fact, by saying "everything is negotiable under the one-China principle", Beijing is essentially telling Taiwan there is nothing left to negotiate.

The Chinese threats and intimidation have four underlying reasons:

  1. The Beijing authorities intend to intimidate the people of Taiwan, and prevent Mr. Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party from being elected;
  2. The Beijing authorities are afraid that the democratic example of Taiwan will give its own population the idea that it could start clamoring for democracy too. This would undermine the position of power of the Communist Party;
  3. The move is also aimed at the Clinton Administration, with the purpose of trying to scare the lame-duck presidency into increasing its pressure on Taiwan and to wring further concessions from the island, so as to whittle away Taiwan's negotiating position before Mr. Clinton leaves office at the end of the year;
  4. The authorities in Beijing play hardball in order to shore up their position in the perpetual internal power struggles in China. An excellent exposé on this point was given by Professor Arthur Waldron in his article "Menacing Language" in the Washington Post of Sunday, February 27, 2000.

The American reaction

To its credit, the first reactions of the Clinton Administration were quite forceful. A White House spokesman said on 22 February 2000 that Washington "…rejects any use of force or any threat of the use of force" to resolve the differences between China and Taiwan.

The strongest reaction came on Tuesday, 22 February 2000, from the Pentagon, where undersecretary of defense Walter B. Slocombe _who had just returned from Beijing _ warned China that it would face "incalculable consequences" if it followed through on the threats to use force against Taiwan.

In addition, the US admiral commanding the American Pacific forces, Admiral Dennis Blair, paid a visit to Beijing at the end of February 2000, and "made very clear" that China's recent announcement about Taiwan was "not helpful," both in its timing and its new threat of force. Admiral Blair also warned the Chinese that "any attempt to solve the issue of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would be viewed with grave concern." He appealed for "patience and moderation," US officials said.

Furthermore, on 24 February 2000, buried in a run-of-the-mill speech to the Washington Business Council, President Clinton himself even made an important policy statement. At the Park Hyatt presentation in Washington DC, he said: "And we will continue to reject the use of force as a means to resolve the Taiwan question. We'll also continue to make absolutely clear that the issues between Beijing and Taiwan must be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan."

While the first part of the statement is not new, it is the first time that Mr. Clinton has formally and publicly stated that the people on the island have a say in their future. This is of course what the democratic movement in Taiwan has been all about, and Mr. Clinton is belatedly waking up to this point.

Taiwan Communiqué comment: We of course warmly welcome Mr. Clinton's new-found awareness of this issue. However, more is needed. The United States needs to return to the basic principle that the future of Taiwan is a matter for the Taiwanese to decide. This is more than saying that the issue of Taiwan's future must be resolved peacefully. This is also more than saying that the issues must be resolved "with the assent of the people of Taiwan."

This requires that the US _ and other Western nations _ state clearly that the people in Taiwan should be allowed to decide their own future. This puts the decision straight into the hands _ and hearts and minds _ of the people of Taiwan.

In the context of electoral politics?

{short description of image}

While Mr. Clinton's statement of February 24th should be applauded, what he said on the following day gives reason for deep concern. During a ceremony on the south lawn of the White House to introduce FY2001 budget initiative benefiting native Americans, Mr. Clinton stated that the renewed Chinese threats and saber rattling should be seen "…in the context of electoral politics playing out in Taiwan and not necessarily assume that some destructive action will follow, just as I saw the Taiwanese provocative comments in the context of Taiwanese elections."

Mr. Clinton apparently still isn't able to distinguish between the provocative belligerent bullying of the Chinese, and the views of the large majority of the people of Taiwan that they want to be accepted by the international community as a full and equal member. Taiwan's elections show that the island has made an incredible transition from a repressive dictatorship under the Chinese Nationalists of the KMT to a fully democratic political system at present. The Clinton Administration should thus take account of this new reality, and adjust its policies away from the anachronistic "One China" fiction.

It seems that China's belligerence, and the fact that it is taking the US for a ride by issuing this policy paper right on the heels of the visit by Mr. Talbott, is in part due to the fact that the Clinton Administration has muddled the water by letting its position on the China-Taiwan issue slide in the direction of China's position. The United States should reemphasize the principles of democracy and self-determination, and distance itself from the ambiguous "one China" concept, which is a relic of the Cold War.

As the Clinton Administration has rightly done, it should lean heavily on China _ not only to refrain from any military exercises or threats against Taiwan during the coming weeks, but also to dismantle the 200 or so missiles which have been erected along the Chinese coast. It should even make dismantling of these missiles a pre-condition for any agreement of China's WTO accession. Free trade is dependent upon the absence of military threats, especially against small neighboring countries.

The Democratic candidates: confused

The Taiwan/China issue also crept into the US presidential debates. The two DemocraticParty candidates, Vice-President Al Gore and Senator Bill Bradley, did express concern about the China threats, but otherwise perpetuated the "strategic ambiguity" line of the Clinton Administration.

Incredibly, Mr. Bradley even went so far as to argue that Taiwan should be prevented to move further in the direction of independence, or else the United States would withdraw its protection of the island as laid down in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. This threat was made in his debate with Mr. Al Gore on 1 March 2000 in Los Angeles. Mr. Bradley stated: "We should tell the Taiwanese that if they take steps toward independence that we would reconsider the Taiwan Relations Act."

Mr. Bradley added that the U.S. should maintain ambiguity in response to their very specific Chinese threats against Taiwan. He stated: "We should tell the Chinese that if they move by force to overtake (sic) Taiwan that we have a responsibility under that act to take appropriate actions — the ambiguity that Al talks about."

During the debate, vice-president Gore did term the Chinese threats "troubling", but also perpetuated the Clinton Administration's vague ambiguity line, that fails to state clearly that the US will help defend Taiwan if China attacks the island. Mr. Gore even downplayed the Chinese threats by saying that they were made, because "…the election in Taiwan is just a short time away."

Curiously, Mr. Gore also said: "We immediately challenged [the Chinese White Paper]. We took them to task, and we do not accept their effort to change the description of what would justify force there."

Taiwan Communiqué comment: Does Mr. Gore's statement mean that he accepts the "original" description of "what would justify force here"?

The people of Taiwan have worked long and hard to gain freedom and democracy. Why should they not be accepted as a full and equal member in the international community, if a country such as Tuvalu (pop. 10,000) can join the UN? Why would the people of the United States have a right to independence, and not the people in Taiwan? Just because there is a big Chinese bully out there?

Democracy means that Taiwan should be allowed to voice their desire to be accepted as a full and equal member of the international community. This is what democracy, self-determination and independence are all about. It would be a sad day, if the party in the US which calls itself the "Democratic Party" would betray those principles.

We would hope that the Democrats (and Republicans) do not accept any use of force by the Chinese against Taiwan.

The Republicans: just as confused

Both Republican contenders for the Republican nomination for the US presidency, Messrs. George W. Bush and John McCain, have stated more forcefully that they would help defend Taiwan if the island were to be attacked by China.

Mr. Bush specifically rejected the old "strategic ambiguity" line, and said "…it's important for the Chinese to understand that if there is a military action, we will help Taiwan defend itself." He added: "it's important for the Chinese to recognize that our relationship is going to change from one of strategic partner to one of competitor, but competitors can find areas of agreement such as in trade."

Mr. McCain said during a debate in Los Angeles that he "…would push the development of sea-based missile defense systems from the U.S. standpoint so that, in case of tensions in the region, I could move those ships very close, but in international waters, and make it clear to the Chinese that the consequences of aggression against Taiwan far, far exceed anything they might gain from committing that aggression."

{short description of image}

Still, the two Republican contenders continue to be confused on the issue of Taiwan's status. Both mentioned they had a "One China" policy, without specifying what this policy entailed, and how it differed from the "One China" pronouncements of the Communist rulers in Beijing.

In the Los Angeles debate, the confusion was quite apparent, when Mr. Bush stated: "But when it comes to violating the One China Policy, the Chinese must hear loud and clear that we will help China _ I mean Taiwan — defend itself."

Mr. McCain also criticized the Clinton administration on the issue of "strategic ambiguity": "But the person who destroyed the strategic ambiguity was President Clinton when he went to China and called Jiang Zemin and the Chinese his strategic partner. And he destroyed the delicate balance of ambiguity which is causing many of these problems now, which is again an example of the fecklessness of the Clinton foreign policy."

However, Mr. McCain also became confused when he added: "I would tell the Taiwanese that they should observe the one-China policy, which calls for peaceful reunification."

Taiwan Communiqué comment: Certainly Mr. McCain wouldn't want to make the same mistake as Mr. Clinton, who _ during his 1998 trip to China _ set of a ruckus when he said "peaceful reunification" when he meant to say "peaceful resolution"? It needs to be reemphasized time and again: the US policy is one of "peaceful resolution". Any negotiations need to leave open all possible outcomes, including Taiwan independence. The term "unification" has not been -- and should never be -- part of the American lexicon.

Coverage in the news media

The renewed Chinese threats led to a large number of excellent articles and commentaries in many newspapers around the United States and other Western nations. Below we give a brief selection of these articles and some quotes.

"China's Threats", Editorial, Washington Post, 23 February 2000

This [Clinton Administration's] policy [of "strategic ambiguity"] grows less tenable as Taiwan gets more and more democratic and China remains a dictatorship. Most Taiwanese understandably don't want to be swallowed by a repressive state, and unlike in the past—when Taiwan was governed by dictators of its own—their views on independence shape national policy. Now China has further weakened the rationale for the U.S. policy of ambiguity.

"Bullying Taiwan", Editorial, International Herald Tribune, 24 February 2000

[China's new threats] could complicate administration efforts to win congressional support for China's entry into the World Trade Organization, as its bullying posture calls into doubt its willingness to live by international rules. None of this deters the regime from making threats.

The administration has in the past bent pretty far to China's wishes. The House was prompted to write the Taiwan bill in part because of President Bill Clinton's public accession, in China, to Beijing's three key demands regarding Taiwan's status. The U.S. response to China's latest challenge should be shaped, at a minimum, by the need not to say or do anything that China could present to the next administration as U.S. acquiescence in its new policy. Strategic ambiguity does, at times, have its uses, but this is a moment for strategic clarity.

"China Turns the Screws", Editorial Wall Street Journal , 23 February 2000

The biggest danger now is that China will seek to play the Washington card again to force Taiwan to the negotiating table. The 1996 missile firings may have failed in the short term, but at least they have succeeded in persuading the Clinton Administration to send officials to Taipei to encourage President Lee to tone down the rhetoric. That in turn may have encouraged China's leaders to think that if they keep up the threats the U.S. will enforce their ultimatums.

In order to dispel such notions, Washington must do more than just promise to never push Taiwan to negotiate under a threat of force. It must acknowledge that Taiwan is a mature democracy now, and any compromise on the issue of sovereignty will have to come from the Taiwanese people.

"… Menacing Language …", by Prof. Arthur Waldron, Washington Post, 27 February 2000

"The signs are that Jiang Zemin is having domestic political troubles and that the new hard line against the West is part of his survival strategy ... What can the rest of the world do? The error is to imagine that somehow we have caused or contributed to the crisis, an error to which the Clinton administration seems particularly prone ...

For instance, in the case of Taiwan — where Jiang dearly hopes for more concessions — the Clinton administration has regularly confused effect with cause, imagining that American or Taiwanese actions were somehow `provoking' Beijing, when in fact China was raising the stakes for its own reasons."

"The Right Response", by George F. Will, Washington Post, 27 February 2000

…Congress should promptly respond to China's strictures against the Taiwan [Security Enhancement] Act and theater missile defense by demonstrating to Beijing that the Clinton era of infinite U.S. pliability is finite.

" He Who Raises Ante Doesn't Always Win", by George Melloan, Wall Street Journal, 29 February 2000

True to form, Mr. Clinton seemed to be apologizing for the Chinese last week after they issued their Taiwan ukase. "You have to see it [the threat of an attack on Taiwan] in the context of electoral politics playing out in Taiwan and not necessarily assume some destructive action will follow," the president told the press. Is this a president talking or a news analyst? Presidents usually respond to threats. What real assurance does Mr. Clinton have that China's generals are not serious when they brandish their newly acquired Russian-made weapons in defiance of world opinion?

…. With the Taiwanese people increasingly unwilling to turn back the clock to their 19th-century status as a Chinese province, China's generals are growing more strident in their demands and threats. "Hong Kong, Macau and now Taiwan" is their mantra, as if China's destiny demands that final conquest. But Hong Kong and Macau were leased territories and came back when the leases expired. Taiwan, by contrast, has been a political football, ceded to the Japanese in 1895 and recovered in 1945 by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to the island with his army after his defeat by the Communists in 1949. Now a free, democratic state, Taiwan is tired of irredentist claims.

"Take Taiwan's Case to the International Court of Justice", by Phyllis Hwang, International Herald Tribune, 1 March 2000

…Now that the people have finally established a democracy and reclaimed a voice in their government, the prospect of being reduced to a province in a totalitarian state holds little appeal. Far from hastening voluntary reunification, the recent threats of force from China will make it even less likely.

When Japan relinquished sovereignty over Taiwan, the Taiwanese people were never consulted about whether they wanted to become independent or to unify with China. Current international law requires that the people of Taiwan be allowed to express their preferences for the future of the island through a referendum conducted in an environment free of coercion.

Yet China has warned that `'any attempt to separate Taiwan from China through so-called referendum would only lead the Taiwan people to disaster.''

Just because China holds a unique interpretation of international law does not mean that the world should accept it and let the people of Taiwan suffer. There is an established forum for resolving disputes of international law, the International Court of Justice, and there are mechanisms that could bring the case of Taiwan before this court.

"Backing Taiwan to deter war in Asia", by James Hackett, Washington Times, 3 March 2000

…For at least the last five years, the communist leaders in Beijing have been talking like Hitler. In 1995 and 1996, they went beyond talk and launched ballistic missiles off the coast of Taiwan. They are modernizing their military with some of the best equipment made in Russia and now say they will use force to take Taiwan if it does not agree to their terms.

… Appeasing Hitler did not work, and appeasing the rulers in Beijing is not working either. It is time to strengthen defenses, both here [in Washington] and on Taiwan.

"The Myth of `One China'", by William Shawcross, Newsweek International, March 6, 2000

The bizarre nature of the international system is rarely seen so clearly as in the case of Taiwan. States that are utterly insignificant or brutal are in the United Nations. Taiwan, which is neither, is not only excluded but has full diplomatic relations with few others because of Chinese threats.

…whoever wins the Taiwanese presidential election next month, the threat from China will remain paramount. Beijing's belligerence makes the reunification it demands ever more unlikely. A sense of a New Taiwan with its own civic consciousness is emerging. The shibboleth of "one China" seems ever more archaic. In short, the external threat to Taiwan is growing as its internal system becomes more mature. That is why the Taiwan Strait remains one of the most dangerous places in Asia.

The NYTimes gang that couldn't shoot straight

{short description of image}

One newspaper that couldn't get it straight was the New York Times. In two editorials on the issue it made several disturbing errors. In an editorial titled "New Tension over Taiwan" (NYT, 23 February 2000) it rightly emphasizes that China was wrong to threaten the use force against Taiwan, but then went on to say that "Most of the world, and most Taiwanese, acknowledge the principle that Taiwan and the mainland are part of a single China that should ultimately be reunited."

This is pertinently incorrect. Yes, since the early 1970s, the world has recognized the government in Beijing as the government of China (as opposed to the refugee Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, which occupied Taiwan after World War II). But they have not taken a position on Taiwan's status.

As the NYTimes editors should know by now, the United States and most other Western nations have only acknowledged China's claim, but have not taken a position themselves. "Reunification" does not appear anywhere in US' or other Western lexicon or policy documents. The US and other Western nations have only emphasized a peaceful resolution of conflict, and have not stated a preference for the eventual outcome.

In a second editorial titled "Military rumblings over Taiwan" (NYT, 3 March 2000) the editorial writers are rightly concerned about the crisis building in the Taiwan Strait, and urge China to modify its course, as "Beijing's pressure approach to reunification is not productive."

The problem with the New York Times statement is that it assumes "reunification" as the eventual outcome. A few lines further it even states that Taiwan "…has stepped away from provocative suggestions that its leaders were preparing for independence."

Communiqué comment: The New York Times insinuations that "independence" is somehow "provocative" are simply out of line. Since when is it a sin to want to be a free, democratic and independent nation? The leaders of Taiwan's democratic opposition have stated that they are not afraid to negotiate with China, but it should be a negotiation in which all options are open, certainly the one in which China and Taiwan live peacefully next to each other as friendly neighboring countries.

Suggesting that Taiwan should only negotiate "reunification" with China is ludicrous. It is like suggesting to the pre-WWII Jews that they should peacefully negotiate with Hitler Germany to transfer to Auschwitz. Taiwan was never part of the PRC in the first place, but was occupied by the losing side in a Chinese Civil War, in which we Taiwanese had no part. We don't want the future of our country to be held hostage to that Civil War.

Back to: Table of Contents

Copyright © 2000 Taiwan Communiqué