Legitimacy is crux of Taiwan issue
The Washington Times
June 22, 2001
To the men who rule in Beijing, the island of Taiwan is part of China, ruled by a government that was defeated in a civil war and therefore has no legitimacy. It is simply a renegade province.
To Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China, its government has existed since 1912 -- 37 years before Mao Tse-tung proclaimed his Communist People's Republic of China -- and is the rightful ruler of China's 1.3 billion people. This history dating back to the collapse of imperial China, Taiwan says, confers the very legitimacy that Beijing denies.
These conflicting views are the crux of a decades-old dispute that has been thrust back into the spotlight by the arrival in Washington of a new administration convinced that President Clinton´s China policy was too soft on Beijing, too hard on Taiwan.
"Taiwan is a part of China," says Zhang Yuanyuan, press counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "It is an issue because it is the unfinished business of a civil war." For the government in Beijing, unification is the central task of the Chinese people and no one has a right to interfere, he says.
China's unfinished revolution
What Mr. Zhang did not say is that Taiwan is also the last holdout in an unfinished socialist revolution of which the Chinese who rule Taiwan want no part.
"The Republic of China has been sovereign since 1912," states Eric Chiang, press spokesman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington.
The office handles Taiwan's business in the United States without having diplomatic status. Only 28 of nearly 200 sovereign states in the world -- virtually all in Central America or Africa -- have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
In late May and early June, Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian, transiting in the United States on the way to and from Central America, found doors open everywhere. He was allowed to meet with congressional delegations and attend social and sports events in New York and in Houston.
Such privileges were denied to Mr. Chen by the Clinton administration during a similar stopover in Los Angeles in August 2000.
Burning issue to some
Despite half a century of Cold War history that underlies the China-Taiwan dispute, few Americans appreciate the depth of feelings aroused by the issue in Washington, Beijing and Taipei.
"Why is Taiwan such a burning issue? When I was growing up, the island in the East China Sea wasn't even called Taiwan. It was referred to as Formosa," one observer said.
Under Mr. Chen, the democratically elected president of Taiwan, the island nation appears to be pursuing a high-visibility drive for enhanced recognition.
But John Tkacik, a retired Foreign Service officer and now a consultant on Chinese affairs, disagreed, viewing Mr. Chen as much more cautious than his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui. During a 1995 visit to the United States, Mr. Lee also met U.S. lawmakers, and unlike Mr. Chen, made a series of high-profile public statements that infuriated Beijing. In contrast, China has said little about Mr. Chen's recent stops in New York and Houston, in which he avoided the press.
Reverses Clinton stance
"It is not Chen's aggressiveness but the belief in the Bush administration that Mr. Clinton was too hard on Taiwan that opened the doors for Mr. Chen on his visit to the United States," Mr. Tkacik said.
For America, a player in East Asia since the first clipper ships sailed from Colonial Boston, Taiwan is a strategic link in the chain of islands that forms America's forward defense in the Western Pacific.
"Our forward deployment is designed to preserve the security and stability of the region," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition he not be identified.
Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, in a recent interview with The Washington Times, questioned the value of drawing a line through the Taiwan Strait. "Many in the region regard a U.S. presence as stabilizing. But no one believes that a line drawn across the Taiwan Strait can be held for very long," he said.
Kuomintang's last refuge
The roots of the Taiwan issue were planted in 1949, when Mao Tse-tung's communist forces decisively defeated the Chinese Nationalist government, or Kuomintang, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and proclaimed the People's Republic of China.
The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in December of that year and announced to the world that their 37-year-old government would remain in Taiwan only until it was strong enough to recapture the mainland.
Following the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, President Truman ordered elements of the U.S. 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Strait to shield the island from invasion.
He did so in an atmosphere of expanding Soviet power in Europe and attempts by Moscow to move forward elsewhere on its Asian perimeter, lending support to communist movements worldwide.
U.S. 'containment' policy
This created the appearance in Washington of a unified international communist movement that had to be contained lest it envelop the noncommunist world.
The United States had already announced it would not recognize Mao's mainland government, but would continue to recognize the Chiang government on Taiwan as the legitimate ruler of China.
The U.S. decision had a legion of private supporters. Influential American citizens were bound to China in a fabric of allegiances that went far beyond their antipathy toward communism.
The "Republic of China" was led by people who professed their devotion to Christianity and to democratic government, who had studied with Americans at U.S. universities and who had stood shoulder to shoulder with Americans in their World War II battle against Japanese invaders.
Those ties formed the invisible emotional underpinnings of the so-called China lobby. But there was another view of what had happened in China and why.
Ending China's weakness
The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party saw themselves not simply as social revolutionaries out to rid China of feudal landlords and their kinsmen. The communists opposed the Chinese social order because it had produced the weakness that allowed Western gunboats to impose semicolonial control in a country that had regarded itself as the center of the civilized world.
"The humiliation was deep and lasted more than a century," said the Chinese Embassy's Mr. Zhang.
Mao and his followers found in the Marxist canon an explanation for what had occurred. Imperialism, Marxist writings taught, was the villain that had brought the Chinese universe down, and the backwardness of feudal landlords made it easier for the imperialists to accomplish their goals.
The 1949 victory over Generalissimo Chiang, to the communists, was also a victory over external enemies and the end of a period of division, just as the seventh-century Tang dynasty and the 10th-century Sung dynasty had reunified China after it had broken up and been overrun by northern barbarians.
"Internal disorder, external penetration," traditional Chinese scholars wrote in a warning to their kinsmen.
Nixon changes course
From 1949 until 1972, Taiwan's status remained unchanged, the respective positions frozen by the animosities created by the Korean War, in which China intervened on the side of communist North Korea. China toiled in isolation while Taiwan was warmly embraced.
By 1972, however, the East Asian world had changed dramatically. The Sino-Soviet split made it clear that the Chinese did not view the Soviet Union as the fountainhead of socialist revolution but as a hegemonistic power that was threatening encirclement of the People's Republic.
The Vietnam War on China's southern border posed a double threat. The United States was seeking to cripple a socialist state in North Vietnam, while the Soviet enemy of China was the closest ally of the Ho Chi Minh government in Hanoi.
For President Nixon and his grand strategist Henry Kissinger, the time had come to draw China into a coordinated effort against the Soviet Union. Under Mr. Kissinger's successor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the coordinated effort became a strategic partnership.
A formula was agreed upon in 1972 for the question of Taiwan, papering over the differences over continued U.S. diplomatic recognition of Taiwan even as it sought to normalize relations with Beijing.
Since the People's Republic on the mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan agreed there was only one China, the United States pledged that it would do nothing to challenge this principle provided the unification of China was pursued by peaceful means.
That became known as the Shanghai Communique, the first of several such accords that dealt with the Taiwan question.
Seven years later, in 1979, President Carter ended the diplomatic inconsistency by conferring full recognition on the People's Republic and breaking off official relations with Taiwan. But the end of one contradiction produced another.
Taiwan Relations Act
Congress, the cradle of staunchly pro-Taiwan sentiments, wrote the Taiwan Relations Act, under which Taiwan would be provided military means sufficient to defend itself.
Special offices were set up in Washington and Taipei to continue the relationship with a government from which the United States had just withdrawn recognition.
By this time China, under the rule of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, had begun its market-oriented modernization and was courting Western investment, obscuring to Western eyes its bedrock commitment to socialism.
Taiwan was also changing, moving rapidly toward political pluralism, scrapping its pledge to retake the mainland by force and ending its dictatorial rule by emergency decree.
From 1979 to 1989, the dragon in Beijing was in ascendance while the tiger in Taipei was held politically at bay.
Even President Reagan, a staunch supporter of Taiwan, signed a communique that pledged that arms sales to Taiwan would gradually dwindle and eventually end.
The pendulum swung violently the other way in 1989 when a seven-week protest at Tiananmen Square by pro-democracy advocates was ended by a tank-led military crackdown.
The People's Republic was castigated internationally on a range of issues, including its human rights record, its continued rule over Buddhist Tibet and its harsh reaction toward all political dissent.
But the economic side of the Sino-U.S. relationship continued to flourish, thanks lately to successful efforts by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to convince outsiders that modernization and economic openings to the West would continue.
China's equal trade treatment, the so-called most-favored-nation status, was renewed annually, and its planned accession to the World Trade Organization has powerful supporters.
Taiwan, under the leadership of Lee Teng-hui, began to feel threatened by China's rapid rise and the international acceptance of the People's Republic.
Taiwan looks for help
Mr. Lee started an effort to elevate Taipei's international standing by seeking U.N. re-entry, membership in many other international organizations and high-profile visits abroad. The campaign bore fruit with his 1995 visit to the United States.
This looked to China much like the beginning of an independence movement by Taiwan, and Beijing renewed a warning that any proclamation of independence would mean war.
Complicating the situation was the existence in Taiwan of an indigenous independence movement among the descendants of Chinese who had been in Taiwan for centuries. These people resented the arrival of the Nationalists, who relocated their massive political and military establishments from the mainland to the island.
Many have never forgotten the deadly crushing of de native Taiwanese democratic movement by the Chinese Nationalists in February 1947.
Nationalists voted out
The political arm of the independence movement, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), emphasized freedom from communist rule far less than it did freedom from domination by the ruling mainlanders.
Last year the DPP, under Mr. Chen's leadership, finally captured the presidency in Taiwan's second free election.
Torn by internal rivalries, the Nationalist Party that had ruled since 1949 spawned a new party that split its traditional vote and allowed the DPP to take power.
Beijing wants the DPP to acknowledge the principle of one China before opening negotiations on all matters, especially unification.
The DPP says it will talk about "one China", but expresses concern that Beijing is really interested in one China under communist rule. Accepting that, it warns, would be a suicide pact for Taiwan.