Taiwan Cliffhanger: Closer to the Edge?
By: Amos Perlmutter
Washington, August 11, 1999
THE tension between the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan is mounting. We do not expect a repetition of the 1996 military confrontation over the Taiwan Straits, but the risk for escalation is still in place.
President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan has been moving in the direction of abandoning the "One China" Policy. He has been signaling to Beijing that the relationship between the PRC and Taiwan must be "state to state."
This created waves in Washington, whose wishy-washy policy toward the PRC has left President Clinton in an awkward position of alienating a democratic free market Taiwan, while appeasing the PRC, which continuously abuses human rights, has stolen American top security secrets, has intervened into Democratic Party electoral affairs, and threatens its neighbors.
So, while we conducted a "humanitarian war" in Kosovo, this administration kowtows to the world's chief violator of human rights, the PRC. The conflict between the PRC and the Taiwan calls for a clear, courageous, and determined policy on the part of the United States. The president can no longer oscillate between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits.
But don't expect Mr. Clinton to call for a different American policy toward China. In James Mann's groundbreaking book, "About Face: A History of America's Curious relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton," the former diplomatic correspondent in China for the Los Angeles Times clearly demonstrates the inside story of people, forces, politics and diplomacy that shaped relations between the U.S. and China.
Beginning with Nixon-Kissinger, the United States policy has been to cuddle the PRC. Mr. Mann shows the famous Shanghai Communique that established the "One China" policy and abandoned Taiwan's independence for the price of President Nixon's personal visit to China.
In a divided Carter Administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski, contrary to the wise advice of Cyrus Vance, escalated the Kissinger policy of cuddling China. Mr. Brzezinski promoted a military relationship with China. If the purposes behind both Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Brzezinksi, especially the former, were to help the United States to use China's influence over Vietnam and isolate the Soviet Union, they had little to show for it. The Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente with the Soviet Union certainly did not need the support of the PRC.
The Reagan administration on the whole did not improve on its predecessors when it came to the issue of Taiwan's independence. This had to do with the arms sales to Taiwan. Secretary of State Alexander Haig recommended "giving way to China on the final concession it had sought: a promise to end American arms sales to Taiwan."
There was one forward-looking and intelligent young State Department official, Paul Wolfowitz, who "represented a new breed in American thinking about China." Unlike Mr. Brzezinski, Mr. Wolfowitz, "believed that American foreign policy in general, and Haig in particular, vastly overestimated China's strategic importance to the United States."
The bottom line was, Mr. Wolfowitz argued, that China needed the United States far more than the United States needed China. But, of course, he was a lone wolf between Nixon and Mr. Clinton who clearly understood that China is an East Asian power and not yet the hegemon that the various administrations since Nixon have claimed it is. China may dominate the Asian international system in the year 2020 or a little before, but we should not pre-empt its strategic significance for the international system.
The price of appeasing China, despite the recently invigorated U.S.- Japanese strategic alliance, is indeed high. China is surrounded by unfriendly countries, which recognize its importance but are unwilling to submit to its aspirations. This is true of Russia, Japan, and above all India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. None of these has great love of the PRC.
The United States has a unique role to lead these nations in a balance of power arrangement to help de-escalate the PRC's expansionist aspirations. Here the relationship with Taiwan is fundamental. The abandonment and reluctance of the administration to repeat the 1996 warning to China are clearly registered - especially in India. An American strategic policy must take into consideration the growth of India's population to 1 billion by the year 2000 - reaching that of China.
India is a democracy. It has abandoned the anachronistic, obsolete Mahatma Gandhi-British socialist ideology, it is joining the global market economy, and it is the balancer of Central South Asia. There is no reason in the world to appease and kowtow to China as if it is the single dominant hegemon in East Asia.
Mr. Clinton's shameful retreat from his declared human rights policy in China is not tactical, but a strategic, error. China should be treated as an economic and political competitor and rival, not as a strategic partner. Its effort to absorb Taiwan must be halted. In view of the coming Taiwanese presidential elections in the year 2000, President Lee and his governing KMT are obviously asserting themselves on the issue of their relationship with the PRC.
The only wise act on the part of the American administration has been to enhance Taiwan's strategic and security status by selling them the F-16. The administration is balking at the urging of Congress and Capitol Hill for greater military assistance.
The administration's unwillingness, and thus failure, to abandon their predecessors' policy of cuddling China and proceeding with a policy of appeasement will never succeed in deterring expansionist dictatorships. This was true when the West failed to deter Adolf Hitler's Germany. An uninterrupted appeasement of China as if it is the single power in East Asia promises the same results.
Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.