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Note to China: He Who Raises Ante Doesn't Always Win

Global View

February 29, 2000


China's age-old technique of putting foreign visitors off-balance through subtle affronts is alive and well, it seems. But perhaps today's imperial Politburo should keep something in mind: This is not an age when the rest of the world sees fit to kowtow to the Middle Kingdom. The Senate, for example, does not suffer mind games gladly.

These thoughts arise from a series of events that began on Feb. 17 when a high-level U.S. delegation arrived in Beijing to resume "military-to-military" talks with the Chinese. It was headed by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Madeleine Albright's No. 2. Gen. Joseph B. Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the ranking military man. In what we must assume was a deliberate snub, the Chinese top brass sent out a lower-ranking officer to parley with the American four-star. And instead of parleying, the Chinese side mainly lectured the visitors on the evils of U.S. support for Taiwan.

To add insult to logorrhea, the Chinese gave no indication to the Americans that they were about to explode a diplomatic bombshell. Three days later, Beijing made international news by issuing a 11,000-word "white paper" setting out a new hard-line policy toward Taiwan. Its main point: China will use force, if necessary, to persuade the Taiwanese to begin serious talks leading to reunification. Or more bluntly: Submit to our demands, Taipei, or we shoot. Mr. Talbott's people searched the transcripts of their conversations in Beijing and could not find one subtle hint that such an outrageous diktat was coming.

That's hardly a friendly way to treat an administration that has gone out of its way to be nice to Beijing. Bill Clinton had capitulated to China's "three noes" policy -- proscribing any form of recognition of Taiwan as a state -- when he visited China in 1998. In November, his trade reps reached a bilateral agreement to clear the way for Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization. And his administration has been working overtime to try to block congressional passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would give Taiwan better means to defend itself against just the kind of attack China now is threatening. Included in the package would be two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with Aegis antiballistic missile systems.

True to form, Mr. Clinton seemed to be apologizing for the Chinese last week after they issued their Taiwan ukase. "You have to see it [the threat of an attack on Taiwan] in the context of electoral politics playing out in Taiwan and not necessarily assume some destructive action will follow," the president told the press. Is this a president talking or a news analyst? Presidents usually respond to threats. What real assurance does Mr. Clinton have that China's generals are not serious when they brandish their newly acquired Russian-made weapons in defiance of world opinion?

Maybe they see Taiwan as their Chechnya. Certainly, nothing that happened in those "military-to-military" talks in Beijing 12 days ago would offer any such assurance, considering the fact that China's top commanders didn't show up.

It is indeed a safe assumption that Beijing hopes its broadside will influence the outcome of Taiwan's presidential election next month. It wants to spike the chances of Chen Shui-bian, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). All three leading candidates, including independent James Soong and Lien Chan of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), are avoiding any public espousal of Taiwanese independence, but the DPP has for years made it clear that it considers Taiwan to be, de facto, an independent state. The KMT is not far from that position either. Mr. Soong is more friendly toward the mainland.

With the Taiwanese people increasingly unwilling to turn back the clock to their 19th-century status as a Chinese province, China's generals are growing more strident in their demands and threats. "Hong Kong, Macau and now Taiwan" is their mantra, as if China's destiny demands that final conquest. But Hong Kong and Macau were leased territories and came back when the leases expired. Taiwan, by contrast, has been a political football, ceded to the Japanese in 1895 and recovered in 1945 by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to the island with his army after his defeat by the Communists in 1949. Now a free, democratic state, Taiwan is tired of irredentist claims.

Chinese government spokesman Zhu Bangzao said last week that after Hong Kong and Macau "it is natural that we have felt a certain urgency in solving the Taiwan problem." Really? Taiwan's "problems" can't match those on the mainland. The State Department has just reported a deterioration of human-rights policies in China last year, manifested among other things in persecution of the Falun Dafa ethical movement. It also suggested some weakening of the rule of law in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. Foreign investment in China is falling sharply. Social unrest is a growing worry for the Communist leadership.

Mr. Clinton said last week that he hoped Congress wouldn't use the China-Taiwan tensions as a reason to vote against a grant of permanent normal trade status to China. So now, in the president's view, it's the Republicans causing all the trouble, not a Chinese threat to blow a small, democratic country out of the sea.

Certainly, trade with China should be normalized and China should be allowed into the WTO. That would promote the more positive forces in the Chinese polity, the many Chinese who would like to have a free, democratic society and market economy, just like Taiwan. But if Mr. Clinton is not going to stand up against snubs and threats from the Chinese military, who is there left to do so but Congress?

Congress has been put in a difficult position by presidential weakness. It has been issued a direct challenge by the Chinese military as the Senate considers a bill to enhance Taiwan's security. It is faced as well with a president who shows little regard for the future of a small democratic state and threatens to veto added military aid. The U.S. has a longstanding policy of warning China not to attempt the use of force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. China is now directly challenging this policy by asserting its own "right" to solve the "Taiwan problem" by killing Taiwanese. Instead of warning China forcefully, the president passes it all off as politics as usual.

So it seems to be up to Congress to take a stand. That's a poor way to run a foreign policy, but may be better than not having a foreign policy at all.