Taiwan Communiqué No. 92, July 2000

Keeping the US engaged

By Li Thian-hok. Mr. Li is a board member at large of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs and chair of the diplomacy committee of World United Formosans for Independence (USA).

Mr. Li Tian-hok

If Taiwan plans to continue to rely on US support to keep its status quo, the Taiwanese need to prove the strength of their commitment to democracy and their resolve to maintain a separate existence from China.

Taiwan's history may be characterized as an incessant struggle for liberty against alien rulers. On May 20, the Taiwanese realized the dream of their forefathers with the inauguration of Chen Shui-bian as president. However, Chen faces daunting challenges. At home, he has a mandate to remove organized crime and tainted money interests from politics. Abroad he needs to keep peace with China and strengthen the support of the US, Japan and other nations, while preserving the de facto independence of Taiwan.

None of this policy agenda is achievable without an adequate national defense, which in turn hinges largely on US policy regarding Taiwan's security and its future. In engaging the US government, the Chen administration will be well advised to consider the following aspects of US policy towards Taiwan.

1. There is no consensus regarding Taiwan's ultimate status

Since the US is a democracy there are discordant views on Taiwan's future among those elements who can influence foreign policy. Thus, while President Bill Clinton leaned toward Beijing's "One China" position in June 1998 by enunciating the "three no's," the US Congress repudiated his action by a near unanimous majority right after Clinton's return. The realist school of academics and former government officials tend to be Sino-centric, stress trade with China to the exclusion of other considerations such as human rights, China's proliferation of nuclear technology, Taiwan's security and even US security. This group, supported by corporate America, will not object to Taiwan's absorption by China, even though they pay lip service to the principle of peaceful settlement and the desirability of democratizing China.

The neo-conservative school of scholars, former government officials and media commentators, on the other hand, are more concerned about the US' national security and the potential threat from a rising, expansionist China. They are also more committed to advancing democracy. They are more prone to accept the Taiwanese's right to self-determination, provided the people of Taiwan can clearly demonstrate their will regarding Taiwan's future. The media and the US public are generally sympathetic to the plight of the Taiwanese. Whether Americans will be willing to shed blood in defense of Taiwan depends on the resolve of the Taiwanese to defend their freedom and the Taiwanese armed forces' performance in resisting Chinese aggression.

2. Shifting policy stance

US policy towards Taiwan is based on the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the three joint communiques of 1972, 1979 and 1982, and President Ronald Reagan's six assurances in 1982. Over the years, however, US policy towards the ultimate status of Taiwan has gradually shifted from a neutral stance to one which leans towards Beijing's version of "One China." This is due largely to the KMT government's National Unification Guidelines and its professed goal of eventual unification.

Even though the KMT government did stipulate three stringent preconditions [Taiwan must be treated as an equal, there must be economic parity, China must first democratize], the international community tended to just notice KMT's objection to Taiwan independence and to ignore the preconditions. Thus it saw little need to recognize an interim regime.

However, it should be noted that contrary to Beijing's assertion, the US has not formally recognized China's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. The US' "one China" policy differs from the Chinese version. Any outcome of Taiwan-China negotiation is acceptable to the US so long as it is peacefully arrived at. The DPP government needs to stand firm on the non-negotiable principle of Taiwan's independent sovereignty so as to prevent a further weakening of US neutrality.

3. The "three no's" are an aberration

The Clinton administration is peculiarly devoid of a world strategic vision. It has concentrated on access to the China market and commercial profit and has at times been even oblivious of the basic requirements of US national security. It has often violated the letter and spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act, which promised the preservation and enhancement of the human rights of the people of Taiwan. Clinton's acceptance of China's "three no's" formulation was an unwise departure from the carefully crafted, flexible US policy towards Taiwan. It is highly questionable whether the "three no's" can be deemed official US policy. It was never codified. It was overwhelmingly rejected by Congress. Also, nonsupport is not the same as objection.

Clinton's term will end in January 2001 and a new administration will take power, which will most likely review and update US policy towards Taiwan taking into account: (1) Taiwan's democratization and Taiwanization, (2) China's military modernization and active preparation for war against Taiwan and (3) China's White Paper ultimatum to attack Taiwan if Taipei is slow in negotiating the terms of unification with China.

The DPP government should not be hasty in negotiating direct links with China or relaxing its restrictions on investing in China, pending the outcome of such US policy review or clarification of the next US administration's policy stance.

4. Basic guidelines of US policy

The US policy towards Taiwan follows certain guidelines. Any dispute between Taiwan and China must be settled peacefully. This principle is designed to deter military conflict and hence US involvement, to protect the people of Taiwan and also to preserve the US role as the guarantor of peace and stability in East Asia. If China were to "liberate" Taiwan with US acquiescence, the credibility of the US-Japan security alliance would be destroyed and the US will have to withdraw from the Pacific island chain which runs from Japan, South Korea, Okinawa, Taiwan to the Philippines and Indonesia. If China invades Taiwan, the US will be compelled to act to protect its geopolitical and strategic interests.

Taiwan should not unilaterally declare formal independence. Such an act would almost certainly precipitate a war in the Taiwan Strait. While such conflict may be inevitable in the long run, the US prefers the status quo. Some scholars believe it is better for the US to fight a stronger China later rather than a weak China now, because Beijing will have more at stake.

Democratization of China is desirable. This is one of the reasons given for China's entry into the WTO and the US granting it permanent normal trade relations. The preservation of Taiwan's democracy as a model for China is consistent with this policy goal. Pro-China scholars argue spuriously that Taiwan's democracy can be preserved within the framework of one China, two systems. However, China has consistently violated the basic human rights of its citizens and minorities. Beijing has already disregarded much of the agreement it has made with Great Britain in connection with the return of Hong Kong.

There is no reason to believe that China will honor any agreement it makes with Taiwan or that it will treat the Taiwanese any better than its own citizens.

While it is important for the Chen administration to assure the US it will not act rashly or do anything to provoke China, it is equally important to make Taiwan's position unequivocally clear — that it will not under any circumstances give up its independent, de facto sovereignty. The strength of US support for Taiwan is ultimately dependent on the strength of the Taiwanese people's commitment to democracy and their resolve to maintain a separate political existence apart from China.

This article first appeared in the Taipei Times, 14 June 2000. Reprinted with permission.

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