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"Affronting" China?


February 9, 2000

Sounds like a lot of fuss for a bill that may not make it through the U.S. Senate--and which President Bill Clinton says he'll veto if it ever does reach his desk. We're talking about the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which earlier this month sailed through the House by a 341-70 vote. Predictably, China's foreign ministry responded by expressing its "strongest indignation" at this "gross interference in China's internal affairs," summoning the U.S. ambassador for an official chewing out.

But China isn't the only one howling. Back in October David Lampton, head of China studies for the Nixon Center, called the bill "doubly provocative" and "the most dangerous piece of foreign policy legislation in memory." Last week Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.) attacked it as a "nonsensical" move destined only to introduce "yet another divisive matter" into the U.S.-China relationship. And speaking for the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, Frank Martin told Agence France-Presse the bill was "unnecessary" and would "needlessly affront" China.

Clearly this is one argument. But it is an argument that would have more credibility if those advancing it could ever bring themselves to concede that China may at times be guilty of its own provocations. Trolling through our own database, Dow Jones Interactive, we found no criticisms from Mr. Martin when China decided to lob a few missiles off the coast of Taiwan in 1995 and 1996. Nor could we find a peep of protest from Mr. Lampton when Mr. Clinton unilaterally broke with the policy of four U.S. presidents by explicitly committing America to Beijing's interpretation of the "one China" policy. And we're still waiting to hear what Mr. Lantos thinks about the "divisiveness" of his own Democratic Party accepting campaign contributions from a Chinese military intelligence operative.

It does make for a certain consistency: China is never to blame. Only Taiwan and the U.S. are "provocative" or "divisive."

In a better world the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act would be unnecessary. The same could be said for the bill's spiritual predecessor, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act passed by a Congress worried that the White House of Jimmy Carter was tilting too much toward China. The genesis of this latest bill was much the same. In fact, it is largely a Congressional reaction to Mr. Clinton's 1998 acceptance of Beijing's "three no's" policy: no independence, no dual recognition, no admittance for Taiwan to any international body for which statehood is a requirement.

In acceding to his host's demands, Mr. Clinton stripped the "one China" policy fiction of its one asset: its ambiguity. Worse, the change didn't occur in a vacuum. This major shift in U.S. foreign policy toward China came despite China's deliberate military intimidation of Taiwan during the 1995 and 1996 missile tests and amid still unanswered questions about China's donations to the 1996 Clinton campaign. In other words, the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act is less a provocation than a reaction to a series of provocations by an increasingly powerful China toward an increasingly isolated Taiwan.

Now, no one has championed the case of trade with China, sans restrictions, more vigorously than this newspaper. And we support membership in the World Trade Organization for China. And we take seriously the danger of blundering into a confrontation simply because tempers run high. But the Taiwanese do have the right to their own security, and America is enjoined by law to help provide it. Certainly the leadership in Taipei needs to understand that an American security guarantee doesn't grant carte blanche to antagonize Beijing, a message which even Taiwan's most ardent friends are careful to remind them of. How much safer all in the region would be if the friends of China could bring themselves to do the same when it comes to provocations from the mainland side of the Taiwan Strait.