Washington Post


A Stand on Taiwan

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, March 21, 1999; Page B07

The morally and politically flawed China policy the United States has followed in this decade suddenly seems mortally wounded. The outburst of accusation and controversy over Beijing's behavior presents a final chance for the White House and Congress to come together on a China strategy that serves U.S. interests and values.

Allegations of espionage and campaign finance efforts directed against Washington by a hand-biting Communist regime in Beijing strip away the self-serving abstractions of "engagement" as pursued by Presidents Bush and Clinton. So does Beijing's furious response to tempered suggestions that the United States may someday sell defensive anti-ballistic missile systems to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

The confluence of the scandals and the controversy over Taiwan's ability to defend itself against missile attack make clear three points:

There is a strategic conflict between China and the United States. That conflict now centers on the future of Taiwan, not on human rights or economic policy. Trying to sweep this conflict under the rug of the "strategic partnership" Clinton has proclaimed with Chinese President Jiang Zemin is doomed to fail.

Only if you put Taiwan at its center does recent Chinese behavior toward Washington make sense. And only by recognizing Taiwan's centrality to U.S. policy in the region can Clinton get his China policy on a steady footing. Clinton's compromising on Taiwan -- aggravated by China foes in Congress who push too hard in the other direction -- is at least as serious a failure as his flip-flop on human rights.

To understand that Beijing's envy and fear of Taiwan's sophisticated, legal lobbying in Congress lies at the heart of China's alleged attempts to buy influence in the Clinton White House does not excuse those attempts.

Nor does China's reported theft of U.S. nuclear technology change the strategic balance -- as various apologists for the regime or for the mundane nature of espionage have noted in minimizing the Los Alamos lab fiasco. Beijing is not foolish enough to engage the United States in a direct nuclear exchange simply because it gained a decade in warhead miniaturization.

But upgrading its nuclear forces through espionage does fit Beijing's objectives of intimidating Taiwan and of steadily raising the potential price to the United States of opposing the mainland's will. Any U.S. commander in chief must now take seriously the Chinese military's boast that it can take out Los Angeles if the United States chooses to defend Taiwan from invasion or direct intimidation such as the missile firings of 1995 and 1996.

The untold part of the sudden deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations is the urgency the Taiwan issue has gained because of Jiang's increasingly insistent view that his historic role is to "reunify" China by the time he leaves the scene.

To do that, the 72-year-old Chinese leader must follow the handovers of power in Hong Kong in 1997 and in Macao later this year with the absorption of Taiwan -- not in the fullness of time but in short order.

Jiang has made this view clear to recent visitors to Beijing after reportedly stressing it to Clinton in their 1997 and 1998 summits. Clinton is said to have failed to respond directly each time. And in public, Clinton has steadily retreated from the deliberate ambiguity of previous administrations on U.S. commitments to defend Taiwan against mainland attack. He has not emphasized the centrality of the "no use of force" component of U.S. policy on Taiwan.

Three immediate, related steps need to be taken:

The administration and Congress should join in reaffirming that the United States will oppose the use of force against Taiwan and is committed to encouraging peaceful, democratic change in Chinese society as the sole basis for unification.

The missile defense controversy gives the administration a chance to seek binding, verifiable commitments from Beijing not to use force to accomplish unification -- thereby eliminating the need for such weapon systems on Taiwan.

And the visit by Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Washington next month gives the administration an opportunity to reach a framework agreement with Beijing on economic relations that would be elaborated into a final accord through formal consultations with Congress, which should not be presented with a take-it-or-leave-it choice.

Only by protecting its own interests and values does the United States gain the stature it needs to guide this strategic conflict with China to a successful outcome. As Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said here recently, consistency -- not containment, and not "endless compromise" -- is the key element in constructing a better approach to China.