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Taiwan Balancing Act


October 29, 1999

A Congressional committee voted Tuesday in favor of legislation that would increase military support for Taiwan. This preliminary vote by the House International Relations Committee, let alone the floor vote-to-come, has already brought forth a fresh round of sputtering from Beijing. There's been plenty of sputtering from Washington too, from Administration officials such as Stanley Roth, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who earlier condemned the bill as a "potentially dangerous vote against a policy that has worked through four administrations and continues to work today."

Mr. Roth has it backward. In fact, the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act is an attempt to restore U.S. policy to the one that worked well through four administrations, but which the Clinton Administration knocked out of kilter. It sends an important message to Beijing: that despite any intimations to the contrary from the Clinton Administration, the U.S. will abide by its long-standing commitments to Taiwan.

The famous one-China policy, developed with great care in 1972, offered a useful ambiguity to all parties: It helped Taiwan advance to prosperity and democracy, it encouraged the mainland to distance itself from Mao, and it allowed the U.S. to gloss over the inconvenient reality of two clearly different Chinese governments in Beijing and Taipei. It was a delicate balancing act, but it worked.

Then Mr. Clinton upset that delicate balance during his trip to China last year. No ambiguity for him. Instead, he gave his outright support to the mainland's long-sought "three nos"--no independence for Taiwan, no two Chinas, and no membership for Taiwan in international organizations. 'Far from defending the status quo, the Clinton Administration has become an advocate for mainland China.

As the U.S. stepped away from its commitment to Taiwan, China stepped away from its commitment to solve the reunification problem without recourse to violence. Rep. Ben Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, says the bill was in response to "Beijing's outright refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan."

It shouldn't escape Beijing's notice that there was strong bipartisan support for the bill, which passed by a 32-6 vote. The bill now emphasizes what Congress -- and previous administrations -- have long said: that the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act means the U.S. will continue to sell Taiwan arms sufficient for its self-defense.

In addition, the bill requires a number of sensible measures that will go a long way toward reducing the possibility of a military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. It requires annual reports on the security situation there and on Taiwan's requests for arms purchases. A one-time, classified report on the ability of the U.S. to respond to a crisis in Taiwan is also mandated.

None of this, however, is likely to be put into practice, since Mr. Clinton is sure to veto the bill. Instead, the debate over the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act will remain a largely symbolic battle. But it has served a useful purpose in stirring up debate about how America should live up to its long-standing commitments to Taiwan. China's leaders must accept, as their predecessors did, that reunification will be a long process. The proper U.S. role should be to hold Beijing to its promise to advance the process peacefully.