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Taiwan Is a 'State.' Get Over It.


July 14, 1999

By James Lilley and Arthur Waldron. Mr. Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to the People's Republic of China and U.S. representative to the Republic of China on Taiwan, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Waldron is a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Asian Studies at AEI.

Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's announcement that the island now considers its dealings with China to be "state to state" follows almost verbatim what German Chancellor Willy Brandt said more than 30 years ago when he ended Bonn's long denial and embraced East Germany as an equal--thus beginning the process that led to German reunification.

But the plaudits are not yet raining down on President Lee as they did on Chancellor Brandt--who, it will be recalled, was awarded the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize for his act. In spite of the similarities, Mr. Lee is taking a lot of abuse: He is "a troublemaker internationally," according to China's official news agency, and he is getting no support from Washington, which is effectively siding with Beijing.

All this is a pity, for Taiwan is doing little more than stating some obvious facts--who can deny that, in reality, China and Taiwan are today distinct, independent, and sovereign states?--and just as importantly, mapping the only peaceful road forward, which lies (as it did in the German case) through mutual acceptance, albeit within a "special" framework.

The problem is that Washington and the world formulated their China policies in the 1970s on the assumption that once we broke our diplomatic ties with Taipei and switched them to Beijing, Taiwan would then somehow go away after a decent interval, like South Vietnam. There would be no need to think about the island, its relationship to China or its international status. When those predictions failed to materialize, and Taiwan democratized instead of collapsing, we should have begun to think about what the real future was going to hold--but we did not. Instead, we clung to the formulations of the Nixon and Carter administrations.

In the 1950s and 1960s what Washington wanted was a "two China" policy that would permit recognition of both Taipei and Beijing, but neither side would agree. So in 1972 Nixon's Shanghai Communique finessed the issue by acknowledging that "all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China," while leaving the U.S. position vague. Even the Carter administration managed to recognize Beijing as "the sole legal government of China" while avoiding the question of who might be Taiwan's legal government. Mr. Clinton was the first U.S. president to explicitly endorse the Chinese claim to Taiwan, most conspicuously during his visit to China, when he denied that Taiwan is a state.

Nor has support for democracy in Taiwan ever been high on the Clinton administration's Asian agenda. Elsewhere in the world the Clinton White House(rightly) insists on freedom, democracy and self-determination--precisely the foundations on which Taiwan's claims are built. But when it comes to Taiwan, this administration embraces the archaic notion of absolute sovereignty by which China justifies its claim: Taiwan is part of their map, regardless of what the population may think--and despite the fact that, in the past 100 years, China has ruled Taiwan for only four (1945-49).

In fact the "one China" framework is a relic of the Chinese civil war. Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party inherited it from Chiang Kai-shek, who insisted that his government in Taipei was the sole legitimate government of China (the mirror image of what Beijing claims today). If one leaves vague exactly what the "one China" is, the formula can bring the two sides together--as in the 1993 Singapore talks, where they treated each other as equals. When China subsequently changed its view to insist that "one China" meant the People's Republic, that, plus the missile firings in 1995 and 1996, transformed "one China" into a trap for Taiwan and a vote loser in elections.

The upcoming Taiwan presidential election may explain President Lee's timing. His new formula, shared by Vice President and likely Kuomintang presidential candidate Lien Chan, is almost identical to that of former Taipei mayor Chen Shuibian, the strong and popular candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. On China issues, these two parties have moved closer to each other, as they try to command the center of the political spectrum. This is all reasonable and understandable, and it is hard to imagine how it could be otherwise unless Taiwan were to revert to one-party dictatorship, which one hopes Washington opposes.

Yet it is probably asking too much to expect the Clinton White House to recognize these facts, or acknowledge just how archaic and unrealistic is its current China policy. To imagine that all the people in Taiwan somehow think of themselves as "Chinese" is to turn the clock back 30 years, to the days when the term "Taiwanese" was considered politically subversive by Chiang Kai-shek's government. Yet that is what State Department spokesman James Foley did when he described Taiwan's future as "a matter for Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to resolve."

Explicitly upholding the Chinese position (as Mr. Clinton did during his China trip), while rejecting Taiwan's (as the State Department did), makes things even worse: it simply encourages Chinese intransigence by feeding their hope that the U.S. will help deliver Taiwan to them--say by cutting off military aid to the island.

But let us hope at least that the White House will resist the temptation to blame Taipei for the palpable failure of its China policy of "engagement." That has been a shambles for several years now, and for reasons having nothing to do with Taiwan. The White House has made things worse with China, undoubtedly, by blindsiding Premier Zhu Rongji on China's entry into the World Trade Organization and mistakenly bombing the Chinese embassy, but even without those disasters, the fact remains that Beijing is currently too weak and beleaguered domestically to respond very positively to U.S.--or Taiwanese--initiatives. The stoning of the U.S. embassy in Beijing should tell the story: The government knows how angry and frustrated its people are. Better that they vent their frustrations against foreigners than against President Jiang Zemin and his colleagues.

Even if the White House does chime in on the Chinese side about the new Taiwan position, that will make little difference. For as the U.S. government repeatedly (and rightly) insists the only way forward is free and uncoerced dialogue between Taiwan and China. And as long as China refuses to acknowledge that Taiwan even has statehood, that dialogue is unlikely to make progress.

The Taiwanese have long studied Willy Brandt. It is time now for the Chinese to take a leaf from the same playbook. In the German case mutual recognition and international acceptance of both within a special framework led to the once inconceivable result of reunification. In the Chinese case a parallel arrangement would be yi zhong liang guo ("one China, two states"). We suspect that when the problem is solved, the solution will be very much like this. Maybe Beijing and Washington should give it a second look.