'One China' Policy Is Obsolete
Tuesday, March 21, 2000
By Eliot A. Cohen
professor of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
The election of Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan has once again raised fears of conflict with mainland China. It would be comforting to think that the Taiwan Straits dispute will be resolved if Beijing is patient and Taipei is circumspect. Indeed, the Clinton administration responded in just that way to the last round of Chinese threats, issued just before the vote in Taiwan. Officials in Washington alternated between pretending that nothing is really the matter (the reaction of our ambassador in China) to sounding vague notes of menace (from the undersecretary of defense for policy) or mere embarrassed murmurings (from the State Department).
For years now, the administration -- and in some measure the larger foreign policy establishment -- has wished to believe that the mounting friction between the PRC and Taiwan reflected mere ill temper on one side, and loose talk about formal independence on the other. This diagnosis is wrong. China's threat to use force if Taiwan does not begin negotiating for unification marks not a perturbation in Beijing's foreign policy, but a deeper trend.
The roots of conflict lie, first and foremost, in the past decade's remarkable institutionalization of Taiwanese democracy. Taiwan, having dismantled much (not all) of the Kuomintang single-party state, has a lively and vigorous democracy, manifested in the defeat of the Kuomintang by a liberal, indigenous opposition party.
The reality of a free and stable Taiwan poses two challenges to China. First, it makes highly unlikely a reunification agreement cut by governments over the heads of their people (as occurred in Hong Kong and Macau, where Beijing negotiated with colonial authorities and the locals had no voice in their destiny). Second, it makes clear to the Chinese people that there are alternatives to the corrupt pseudocommunist system on the mainland, whose legitimacy rests on continuous economic growth and, increasingly, on nationalist fervor. China is right to fear this change; the U.S. would be wrong to yield to that fear.
When Washington announced in 1978 that it would withdraw diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, it may have been true that Chinese on both sides of the Straits agreed that there was only one China. And until President Clinton blundered into a different formulation, the U.S. merely acknowledged this as the common Chinese, not the American, view. But Taiwanese public opinion has changed, and understandably so. Today China and Taiwan are, in fact, two viable, independent states. The pretense that there is only one is just that -- a self-willed, if convenient fraud.
At the same time, China is bound to become more aggressive. After all, it has successfully absorbed Hong Kong and Macau. It faces domestic political turbulence. And its military has fed for some time on increasing defense budgets, improved training and education, and government-manipulated nationalism. Beijing has acquired the means to back up its bluster with force. A February 1999 Pentagon report documents China's military buildup: the construction of bases opposite Taiwan, the acquisition of top-of-the-line Russian ships and aircraft, and a rapid program of development and acquisition of ballistic and cruise missiles.
Taiwan's military, still emerging from obsolescent command and training structures developed by the Kuomintang party dictatorship, may find itself unable to prevent lethal harassment -- blockade by air or submarine, missile strikes, mining of harbors, seizure of outlying islands -- all with a view to making the island accede to eventual unification. The threat may not be immediate (though China did fire missiles off Taiwan's coast in 1996), but it certainly looms large in the next five years.
Such an outcome would be a strategic disaster for the U.S., for three reasons. First, the success of stable and free democratic states is an overwhelming national interest of the U.S. Second, Washington's credibility in Asia is profoundly tied up with its guarantees to Taiwan. Third, should Beijing ever gain control of Taiwan, it will establish a geostrategic position in the South China Sea that would extend its influence far beyond its immediate surroundings.
To reassure Taiwan and deter China, it will not suffice for Washington merely to transfer a few high-technology weapon systems, like Aegis-class cruisers for missile defense, to Taiwan. The threats the Taiwanese face are varied and complex, and Taipei will need more than the ability to shoot down a handful of ballistic missiles, useful as such a capability would be.
Far better would be a response that begins by affirming America's commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which asserted that the U.S. would oppose "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means," including boycotts and embargoes, let alone military force. Washington should adopt a broader program of military aid to Taiwan -- to include open and extensive training and military planning, as well as arms sales that might even include retaliatory weapons such as conventional submarines. The U.S. must deliver a consistent message to China that it will vigorously oppose -- with military power -- any attempt to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force or threat of force.
What Washington shouldn't do, though, is withhold normal trade relations from China, an ineffectual tool of deterrence that might prove counterproductive. There's no guarantee that a more open economic order would restrain Beijing's international behavior, but if anything can foster change within mainland China, it is its integration into the world economy.
However resolute Washington is with Beijing, it is entirely conceivable that the U.S. will find itself confronting China over Taiwan. The roots of conflict go deep, and external powers cannot control the domestic politics of either.
A more likely outcome, unfortunately, is that the U.S. will continue to confuse China and others by sending mixed, and occasionally weak signals about its intentions and determination.
In the end, American national interest, and not mere sentiment, will require that American military power come to the rescue of Taiwan in a crisis. But that crisis will be infinitely worse if officials blunder into letting others think that the U.S. will flinch.