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China Bill

Review & Outlook

August 5, 1999

The famous "One China" was certainly a convenient fiction, helping the U.S., China and Taiwan all gloss over the awkward fact of two clearly distinct Chinese governments, in Taipei and Beijing. It was a fiction that helped encourage the mainland in moving away from Mao, moreover, and that gave Taiwan enough leeway to blossom from a one-party dictatorship into a prosperous, stable and democratic state. The fiction worked because each side was allowed to interpret it the way it wanted -- even if those interpretations are contradictory.

The suspension of disbelief that sustained "One China" is now pretty tattered, and matters are heating up in the Taiwan Strait. China has seized a Taiwanese freighter in Taiwanese waters, and pointedly announced the testing of a missile that could reach some U.S. targets. The possibilities of a dangerous confrontation are rising.

The precipitating event was the statement by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui that Taipei and Beijing should deal with each other on the basis of "special state-to-state relations." He came under immediate attack for what the mainland chose to take as a unilateral declaration of Taiwanese independence. And it is certainly true that sentiment for independence has been rising in now-democratic Taiwan. Mr. Lee's remark was made to a radio service in Germany, which surely was no accident, given that Germany unified after many years of having two seats in the United Nations.

The U.S. policy on "One China" was formulated with great precision in the Shanghai communique following President Nixon's successful 1972 visit. To wit, "The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China." What is now in question, in short, is the very premise of this policy: What happens when "Chinese on either side" no longer agree?

The Clinton administration is blaming President Lee, for example, suspending visits to Taiwan by State and military personnel. The Washington Times reports that in off-the-record briefings on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Commander-in-Chief for the Pacific, Admiral Dennis Blair, referred to Taiwan in scatological terms, and stated that in the event Taipei declared formal independence, America should not defend it. Someone should remind Admiral Blair of Dean Acheson's infamous remark that South Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter. In fact, the danger of confronation grows ever greater with each minute that the United States fails to make clear it will defend Taiwan against military attack.

The Clinton administration's worse legacy may be its bungling of the relations with China. We have never been among those who think that Washington can simply legislate China into freedom and democracy. But the U.S. can sweeten the incentives and broadly influence the direction of China's own choices. Since the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chinese rulers have suffered a great blow to their legitimacy, which now rests on two strands -- increasing prosperity and Han nationalism. A sensible U.S. policy would be to continue to nudge the Chinese down the same path taken by Taiwan so many years ago: emphasizing economic liberalization, likely with enough time to produce a more liberal political regime, and downplaying nationalism.

Incredibly, the White House has done almost the opposite. Issues of most-favored-nation trading status, which were thought resolved, have been re-opened with a vengeance. Likewise China's bid for WTO membership, shot down less for reasons having to do with China than a cynical payoff to labor and other domestic allies who stood by Mr. Clinton during impeachment. The how was almost as insulting as the why: Mr. Clinton chose to humiliate Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji by saying no on WTO during the latter's state visit, after Mr. Zhu had made huge concessions about opening China for more business. Little wonder that within Beijing more nationalist forces have grown in influence.

Especially so since their postures are rewarded by Washington. President Lee did not rupture the "One China" fiction; President Clinton did in his own radio interview in Shanghai last year, when he abandoned the careful language of the 1972 communique and came out foursquare for Beijing's "three nos" interpretation of One China: no independence, no two Chinas, no membership for Taiwan in state-based international organizations.

Meanwhile the world sees White House coffee klatches for PLA gunrunners, the administration's apparent indifference to Chinese agents at American nuclear labs, and the sorry image of a U.S. ambassador to China staring out from a shattered embassy window, helpless in front of an angry Beijing mob egged on by the Communist government. If you were President Lee, and you counted on such an administration to defend your island, what would you do? Given Washington's present flaccidity, Taiwan may next conclude that the only guarantee for its democracy that will mean anything would be its own nuclear bomb.

At this stage it is not yet clear which China will emerge in the 21st century: a land of 1.3 billion newly prosperous and contented people, or a one-party fascist state bent on using its military might to establish hegemony in the Pacific and redress all real or imagined historical slights. Shouldn't American policy at least be clear about which one it wants to promote?