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Assessing the Potential For a China-Taiwan War

Global View

August 10, 1999

By George Melloan

Wars happen, often when you least expect them. The reasons they so frequently come as a surprise are complex, related partly to the desire of aggressors to achieve just that--surprise--and partly to the difficulty civilized people have in fathoming why anyone would want to start a war. Then there is the element of miscalculation.

Slobodan Milosevic miscalculated when he didn't take a NATO ultimatum seriously enough and soon had bombs raining down on Serbia. That was because he had been getting by with murder, literally, for years and apparently thought that he could proceed with impunity on a new campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. His sins were monumental, of course. America's and NATO's sin was in allowing him to believe that they were not up to the task of punishing a bush-league tyrant.

This danger of not being taking seriously by a potential adversary is why the character of an American president is so important to the task of preserving and advancing peace and justice in the world. America, even though its military strength is diminishing, is increasingly dominant in NATO because other members are running down their military capabilities even faster. America is the only remaining global military power, with other particular responsibilities to allies in the Middle East and Asia. Militarists should never be led to expect that an American president will not have the courage or will to carry out those responsibilities.

Bill Clinton, despite impeachment, Monicagate and a variety of other reflections on his moral character, ultimately rose to the Milosevic challenge. He organized his allies and employed America's high-tech weapons to persuade Slobo to withdraw his troops, police and paramilitary killers from Kosovo. NATO will continue to police Kosovo but restoring civil order was dumped in the lap of the United Nations, which leaves the long-term outcome in doubt. But for Mr. Clinton it was a sufficient victory.

A better victory would have been achieved, one that would have saved thousands of lives, if America had never led Milosevic to believe he could get away with his military adventures, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo. Which raises the question of a far more serious danger of miscalculation now unfolding in East Asia. A costly misjudgment could result from the hints that the Clinton administration is giving to China that it is willing to sacrifice Taiwan to the goal of improved relations with the mainland.

There could hardly have been a worse message than the one sent to China last week by America's top military commander in the Pacific, Adm. Dennis Blair, in an off-the-record briefing of a congressional group. The Washington Times reported that he applied a crude scatological word to Taiwan in saying that it is befouling the "punch bowl" of U.S.-China relations. He further said that the U.S. should not defend Taiwan if it asserts its independence from China. In other words, forget about the Taiwan Relations Act, the fact that Taiwan is a democracy and that China is making menacing military gestures toward the people of Taiwan. Just don't pollute the punch bowl.

The admiral wasn't summarily fired and Stanley Roth, the State Department's Asia hand, didn't exactly recant when he was called on the carpet by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee afterwards, saying only that the U.S. was being "scrupulously neutral" in the recent dispute between China and Taiwan over Taiwan's assertion of its own statehood. So it must be assumed that the admiral's remarks were a sailor's salty interpretation of Clinton policy. Certainly, that is what the Chinese are thinking right now, and the People's Liberation Army is surely wondering if it should take a few more missile shots across the Taiwan Strait, as it did in 1996, to see how the U.S. will respond. Indeed, Chinese warplanes are overflying the Strait even now near Taiwanese airspace. Taiwan has instructed its airmen not to respond to the provocation. Chinese warships also seized a ship hauling supplies to a Taiwanese military outpost on the island of Quemoy last week. With close encounters of this kind, the danger of miscalculation is enormous.

The first thing the Clinton administration should try to get straight is that its relationship with China is not a "punch bowl." The regime in Beijing does not consider the U.S. a "friend" in any diplomatic sense of that word. Rather, it is a useful enemy for a ruling Communist Party that has become especially concerned in recent months about its grip on power. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was a godsend for Beijing, allowing it to stir up demonstrations against the Americans that briefly distracted the Chinese people from more personal problems, such as official corruption, a slowing economy, rising unemployment and only limited progress toward economic reform.

If things got worse, would China go to war with Taiwan as an even bigger distraction? Probably not. Taiwan's military is not to be taken lightly. But never discount entirely the possibility of a troubled regime resorting to war as a means of unifying public support. It was positively stupid, under present conditions, for a U.S. admiral to even suggest to a potential enemy that the U.S. would do nothing about upholding longstanding commitments in such an event.

China does not yet approach the U.S. in terms of military power, although it has the world's largest army, and some other assets, such as submarines and nuclear missiles, that must be taken seriously. But the PLA's heavy purchases of military hardware, including high-performance Sukhoi fighter-bombers from Russia, should make its intentions to become a significant military power fairly clear. China's theft of nuclear and other technologies for advanced weaponry in the U.S. has given its modernization efforts a boost. And as further testimony of the PLA's intentions, there is its takeover of the old Soviet electronic espionage facilities in Cuba. Clearly, China has a strategic view of the world. It knows that the Strait of Taiwan is a vital sea lane to the South China Sea. It surely should be evident by now that the U.S. is the No. 1 target of its strategy for enhancing its power in Asia and the world at large.

An American administration with a better grip on foreign policy would certainly be trying to keep U.S.-China relations on a friendly and mutually profitable basis. It would be promoting the positive elements of the relationship, of which there are many, but at the same time strengthening its security alliances in Asia, with Japan in particular and with no apologies to the Chinese military. Most of all, it would not display signs of moral weakness that might induce the Chinese military to miscalculate. That, as often as not, is what causes wars to happen.