Why it's time to resolve the Taiwan issue

Henry C K Liu

First appeared in Asia Times on Line  April 25, 2002


In 1990, the senior Bush administration was trying to find a new, meta-Cold War rationale for preserving close bilateral ties with China. US president George Bush tried in one press conference the Henry Kissinger theme of China as a counterweight to the growing power of an increasing unruly Japan, with whom the US was having economic and trade friction.

On February 7, 1990, Lawrence Engleburger, undersecretary of state, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a landmark admission that the two-decade-old Cold War basis for strong US-China relations was no longer a dominant or controlling factor, and that the anti-Soviet basis of US China policy was to be no longer operative. In its place, Engleburger identified cooperation in international problems, such as non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and environmental pollution, as the new rationale. He claimed that China's strategic value to US objectives in international problems had not declined.

The paradox of this new policy was that it became a message to China that non-cooperation in non-proliferation could be a way to make the US take China more seriously, including on the issue of arms sales to Taiwan. There was also much wishful expectation in misguided US circles that the post-Tianamen Square Chinese leadership would be transitional and that the US could adopt a holding mode while waiting for the dust to settle. In the meantime, other hot spots around the globe, such as the Middle East and the Gulf, were keeping the Bush administration fully occupied. Later, it was hoped, the US could deal with a new generation of Chinese leaders.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), embarrassed by its lapse in predicting the collapse of communism in Europe, became compensatory speculative about the precarious future of Chinese communism. Ambassador Winston Lord testified in Congress along the line he wrote in Foreign Affairs, "The current discredited regime is clearly a transitional one." He was right when he predicted in early 1990 in testimony before Congress that within three years there would be a "more moderate, humane government in Beijing", although he was wrong to assume that it would be a different Chinese government.

The granting of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to China became the focus of Congressional opposition to the White House's policy toward China and annual conditional renewal was adopted. At the same time, opposition by US labor against Chinese low-price imports pushed the Democrats toward seeing its anti-China posture as a tactic in the 1992 elections. Besides human-rights and anti-prison-labor activists, all kinds of other groups wanted their pound of flesh. With the support of Senator Daniel Moynihan, Tibetan separatists succeeded in adding a Tibetan clause in 1991. Senator Joseph Biden added the condition of non-proliferation. Even the Voice of America got on the list to demand a halt to the order to moderate its anti-communist broadcasts.

China's decision to let dissident Fang Lizhi go to America brought about a reciprocal release by Bush of World Bank loans and Japanese credit, resulting in a 40 percent increase of Japanese imports to China in 1991, making a mockery of Bush's China card against Japan.

The Gulf War in November 1991 and China's accommodating vote in the United Nations Security Council provided the basis for Bush to receive foreign minister Qian Qichen in the White House, breaking the ban on high-level contacts. The following year, China indicated its intention to comply with the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

In the summer of 1992, with Bush's geopolitical China policy under attack from Bill Clinton, election politics forced Bush to reverse a decade-old policy of reducing arms sale to Taiwan by announcing the sale of 150 F-16 fighters to Taiwan. The sale meant jobs for General Dynamics, the planes' manufacturer in Texas, Bush's home state. The sale was a direct violation of the 1982 Communique that "arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years".

China protested the sale. Qian warned that it was a "serious incident" and held Washington accountable for "serious consequences". But China took no visible action, for fear of hampering Bush's chances for re-election. After the election, China quietly shipped M-11 missiles to Pakistan on the ground that their range fell below MTCR guidelines. In the final weeks of the Bush administration, US trade representative Carla Hills was sent to Taiwan, a first for cabinet-level officials since normalization, in direct violation of the no official contact with Taiwan policy.

James Lilley, soon after completing his tour as Bush's ambassador to Beijing in May 1991, drawing from his past connection to Taiwan, challenged the basic underpin of US-China relations. He attacked the Chinese claim of sovereignty over Taiwan as "anachronistic" and declared the three communiques outdated. Lilley's views stimulated in the minds of a sizable segment of the US policy establishment the need to review US policy on China.

Lilley was the political mentor of Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's former president, for whom he had engineered US support as early as the '80s. Writing in the New York Times in July 1999, Lilley practically claimed credit for tutoring Lee on the provocative "two states" doctrine in defining Taiwan's relations to the mainland. It was based on the Germany model, with Taiwan as West Germany. The doctrine has been denounced by China as a move toward Taiwan independence.

Clinton campaigned from the Democratic left against Bush for "coddling the Butchers of Beijing", while Ross Perot, as a Reform Party presidential candidate, attacked Bush with similar polemics on the right. China became a focus issue in US partisan and presidential politics with a bitterness not seen since the Harry Truman era.

After winning the election, the Clinton China team, led in the first term by secretary of state Warren Christopher and Lord, was single-minded about human rights and democracy for China, while the administration was generally focused on domestic issues. In his confirmation hearing, Christopher even formally declared US policy to be seeking to facilitate "peaceful evolution" in China from communism to capitalistic democracy, a direct violation of the Shanghai Communique of non-interference in domestic affairs. Lord, as assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, went even further and advocated a policy of linking human-rights progress in China to US restraint on Taiwan. Clinton and national security adviser Anthony Lake, in response to US domestic politics, reintroduced morality in US foreign policy and adopted what some critics have labeled moral imperialism. Strategic ambiguity over the defense of Taiwan was escalated into legal, political and moral imperatives.

On May 28, 1993, Clinton signed an executive order on conditional MFN as a compromise to head off new legislation by Senators George Mitchell and Nancy Pelosi. Even the US business community saw human-rights conditionality as a tool for opening Chinese markets. US companies would lobby against MFN conditionality only if they were promised lucrative deals by China. In 1993, US companies obtained 6,700 contracts from China; it was also the year when Chinese exports of M-11 missiles to Pakistan led the US to invoke sanctions under MTCR, but that faced opposition from California high-tech companies, such as Hughes, which had contracts with China to launch communication satellites. Meanwhile, Wall Street pushed the "rule of law", "transparency" and open markets as being in China's own economic interest.

But the Pentagon wanted a less confrontational policy toward China. The US military needed China's cooperation in its objective of preventing a nuclear North Korea. It wanted high-level military exchanges with China to moderate Chinese exports of arms. Above all, the Pentagon wanted to restart military cooperation with China to minimize the prospects of an eventual war with the largest country in the world, a nightmare scenario for US planners. After the Yinhe fiasco, in which a CIA accusation that a Chinese container ship carrying chemical-weapons material to Iran was proved false to the whole world through open inspection with Saudi Arabia as an intermediary, the Clinton administration finally conducted a review of its single-dimensional confrontational China policy.

On September 25, 1993, with US-China tensions at an all-time high, Lake summoned Ambassador Li Daoyue to inform him of the Clinton administration's new approach to China, generally described as "constructive engagement". Under this policy, the US would again engage China on all levels in a broad range of areas and Clinton would meet with Jiang Zemin in Seattle in November at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, a first summit meeting in four years since Tiananmen Square.

China sees the United States as having explicitly violated all commitments implicit in the three communiques on the issue of Taiwan. The Tiananmen incident in 1989 and subsequent events, including Taiwan's move toward democracy, provided the US with a basis to set aside earlier agreements to overlook differences in ideology in the interest of strategic cooperation. The US has visibly replaced geopolitically induced tolerance with strident criticism of Chinese political culture, particularly human-rights practices, and Chinese socialist society in general. Ideological confrontation is revived and intensified as the US openly practices what China views as moral imperialism.

It started back in mid-1988, when Lord, ambassador to China in the Ronald Reagan administration since late 1985, began giving talks to Chinese students at Peking University and Fudan University in Shanghai. This marked a departure from accepted formats of US-China relationship, which since 1972 had been exclusively government to government. These talks signaled the beginning of an ideological offensive.

At the same time, Taiwan began to retreat from the one common basis with Beijing: that it was part of China and that reunification of China was an natural fate which time and dialogue should bring about. After Tiananmen, the United States abandoned all efforts of the previous decade to integrate China into global institutions and began to adopt a new punitive isolation of China. In the period of rapid growth of global multilateral institutions, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), it was ironic that these institutions were being built without the participation of a fifth of the world's population. The Wassenaar Arrangement, the Australia Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group were all organized without China, and they subsequently became obstacles to improvements in US-China relations. Nationally, China would in turn refuse to be bound by rules that it not only did not participate in crafting, but also can be interpreted as anti-Chinese. These multilateral regimes could not work in the long run because they excluded one of the principal actors they were designed to affect.

The lack of a strategic framework, the ambiguity of past understandings, a rebirth of US ideological intolerance and new Taiwan adventurism in a quest for separatist status have resulted in a near collapse of mutual confidence and trust between the US and China. Chinese efforts to deal with the Taiwan issue as an internal affair were consistently challenged by the United States, both through bilateral treaties and via US domestic law, in violation of the spirit of the three joint communiques.

Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui was permitted to visit the US as a result of the Clinton White House overruling secretary of state Christopher and yielding to a contentious pro-Taiwan Congress. China had no option but to interpret the move as a gross violation of the spirit of the three communiques when even the US secretary of state so advised the president.

Increasingly, the US permitted de facto erosion of its official acknowledgments and tacit understanding with China over the Taiwan issue. With tacit US support, a major political offensive was launched by Taiwan against the status quo, upsetting the modus vivendi that had preserved peace in the Taiwan Strait. That offensive culminated in the provocative "two states" doctrine. China's response was erratic amid internal debate whether US policy on Taiwan was merely inept or deliberate. Chinese indecision further encouraged Taiwan aggressiveness.

Meanwhile, waves of anti-China hysteria began sweeping across the US political landscape, fanned by a largely hostile press, both conservative and liberal, with Congress holding accusatory hearings on alleged Chinese misbehavior, such as illegal campaign contributions, nuclear espionage, prison labor, coercive population control, trafficking of human organs, religious persecution, even geopolitical designs on the Panama Canal. Capping this pattern of hostility was the inexplicable bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, caused allegedly by outdated CIA maps.

Despite unjustified pro-American wishful thinking in powerful quarters in the Chinese leadership, China is forced by these events to acquiesce to Mao's belief that military preparedness is the best hope for a peaceful reunification of Taiwan. This trend may end in a rejection of the previous modus vivendi of flexibility and herald a rigid demand for an uncompromising solution for Taiwan within a set time frame. Meanwhile, Beijing has also signaled to Taiwan that previously non-negotiable issues can now be negotiated in the context of Chinese internal affairs.

Taiwan has exploited the rise in US moral imperialism to cement US commitment to defend a "democratic" and capitalistic Taiwan in the event that its political offensive should provoke military conflict with the mainland. Officially, there is no such US commitment, but Taipei banks on rising US hegemony to carry out Taiwan's private pursuit of separative objectives that the US may not officially endorse, but tacitly also does not disprove of.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), Public Law 96-8 of April 10, 1979, which passes as a counterweight to normalization with Beijing, is a US law. As such, it has a legal authority exceeding the three diplomatic communiques. The TRA establishes a continuing relationship between the United States and Taiwan on an unofficial basis to "preserve and promote extensive close and friendly commercial, cultural and other relations". It also states that the United States considers that "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means including boycotts and embargoes is a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States".

The proposed Taiwan Enhanced Security Act (TESA), passed on February 1, 2000, by a bipartisan veto-proved vote of 341-70 in the House, which legitimizes increased US military assistance and sales to Taiwan, threatens to rupture US-China relations. The Senate subsequently narrowly defeated the measure.

China can reasonably calculate that the United States will not intervene directly in the Taiwan Strait or come to Taiwan's assistance in the event of conflict, if such intervention involves risks of heavy losses of American lives. Despite the TRA, and the defeated TESA, the United States is still prevented by its own law and by international law from legally intervening in Chinese internal affairs. Only extremists in the US will dispute that Taiwan is a Chinese internal affairs matter.

US performances in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo have demonstrated a lack of ultimate resolve for risking American lives in distant conflicts, although Afghanistan has to some extent changed this. In the first campaign of the 2000 debate, both presidential candidates asserted that each would only send US troops into combat if a determination of a quick victory is assured. That condition, which has come to be known as the Powell Doctrine, does not exist in the Taiwan Strait.

While Taiwan is a vital interest of China and China has explicitly stated it is willing to sacrifice millions of lives and even entire cities to reunify it, Taiwan is not a comparable vital interest for the United States. Nor is the United States prepared to make as comparable sacrifices as China over the issue. Chinese strategy thus may well aim at deterring US intervention on Taiwan by making clear that such intervention would entail exceedingly high costs in terms of American lives. China should not initiate any pre-emptive hostility against US forces, as history has shown that a Pearl Harbor attack served only to consolidate US resolve for total war. But China will have to leave no doubt about the prospect of high US casualties in a limited Strait war to avoid any miscalculation of the part of the US.

Strategically, the US has yet to understand that lack of progress in reunification is preventing domestic Chinese politics from meeting China's developmental needs, by distorting China's national priorities and in its allocation of scarce resources toward military expenditure. A runaway escalation of the Taiwan issue will radicalize Chinese politics that can have long-term spillover effects on the stability of the whole region. It complicates or may even derail Sino-Japanese relations.

US calculations on military intervention over Taiwan rest on strategic consequences. The United States has no intrinsic strategic interest in Taiwan except diplomatic credibility that may affect US strategic defense commitments to Japan. US policy on Taiwan, disguised as defense for democracy and capitalism, is really held hostage to the traditional Japanese view on the importance of Taiwan for Japanese security. Taiwan is the only pro-Japanese territory in Asia and it will be its first objective in future expansion into Asia. If the United States should define Taiwan in terms of Japanese security interests, as Theater Missile Defense (TMD) implies, and subsequently fail to defend that very strategic interest, Japanese rearmament may well result.

On the other hand, if Taiwan moves toward independence, it will spark Japanese ambitions toward it, not to mention immediate Chinese action. Thus the optimum solution may well be an early accommodation with China so that the return of Taiwan to China may be viewed by Japan as a neutral development in terms of Japanese security interests.

US intervention in any conflict over Taiwan will involve US bases in Japan. That will force Japan to choose between a hostile relationship with China and the existing US-Japan alliance and its strategic interests in Taiwan. How Japan will choose is by no means clear or predictable. Japan has been trying to shift gradually from its now unhappy economic dependence on the US, with whom contentious trade disputes have been intensifying and resolution appearing more remote over time, by developing alternative markets in Asia and Europe. Japan cannot escape concluding that the Asian financial crises of 1997 had been caused - if not engineered - by US-led globalization and dollar hegemony and that Japan has been a collateral victim while the US has been a happy beneficiary.

The immediate threat to Japan during the Cold War had been the Soviet Union, the disappearance of which has changed the basis of the US-Japan defense alliance. Japanese security issues with North Korea and China may in fact be simpler to solve with a reduced US presence. Both the left and the right in Japanese politics oppose the US-Japan defense alliance. The left does not wish to see Japan dragged into a war in Asia merely to defend US interests, while the right opposes the defense treaty as an insulting obstacle to Japan's sovereign right to re-arm.

Just as the nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has changed after the Cold War, the US-Japan defense alliance faces a very uncertain future. Taiwan may well be the focus for Japan to address its future security options. Thus it is natural for China to consider it an imperative to reach an understanding with Japan independent of US positions over Taiwan.

The United States, Japan and China have a common interest to manage the Taiwan issue to prevent a destructive unraveling of Asian-Pacific strategic balance, resulting in an unending confrontation between the US and China, like the situation with Cuba, Iran, Iraq or worse, and/or the breakdown in the US-Japan alliance, and/or a re-emergence of hostile regional rivalry between Japan and China.

The US insistence on molding China in its own image as a condition for constructive relationship is foolhardy. Yet US leadership has been timid in leading public opinion away from demonizing China. Deep-rooted American antagonism toward China has forced all US administrations since 1949 to bypass normal diplomatic and institutional channels in their dealings with China, at times with an energetic White House even cutting out the State and Defense departments, let alone Congress and the press. This style of foreign policy unfortunately leaves US policy on China devoid of broad-based support or even understanding. Thus China policy has been allowed to fall victim to the peculiar dynamics of US domestic politics and the whims of energetic policy wonks. Many US analysts criticize China rightly for being inept in its handling of the US Congress. Yet the responsibility for nurturing this faulty Chinese perspective traces back in no small way to an arrogant White House.

US attempts to defuse rising Chinese national capabilities through its support for separatist forces will not succeed, because China will resist such development at all costs. A policy of fragmentation or dismemberment of China, by encouraging its breakup into independent regions and provinces, is a contradiction in logic. A weak China that can be dismembered is a threat to everyone, so a policy of fragmentation to reduce a so-called China threat is not only unnecessary, but it will in fact bring about undesirable chaos that will threaten regional or even global stability. In fact, a US policy to fragment China would be a guarantee to ignite precisely the kind of Chinese supernationalism that its enemies are interested in avoiding. The "Open Door" policy of secretary of state John Hay worked out that logic a century ago.

New China's national purpose is one of redressing a century of national victimization under Western imperialism. Until the current order of residual imperialist exploitation is redressed, no Chinese government can accept the status quo and expect to stay in power. China's national interests lie in a rightful fulfillment of Chinese "manifest destiny" to balance its rich traditional culture with modern scientific echnology. It involves a renaissance of Chinese culture and societal values in the socialist vision of Da Tong, (great ommonality). It involves the justifiable recovery of territories lost under the age of Western imperialism.

China, by political logic, is entitled to major power status and deserves the acknowledgment of that status by all. It seeks to expand its rightful influence in international institutions and forums that make decisions economically and strategically for the region and the world. China's destiny is being fueled by a revival of popular nationalism and renewed confidence in its cultural heritage. Any government that does not respond to these national aims cannot govern China for long. Any foreign government that does not acknowledge this Chinese destiny cannot hope for good relations with China.

As a dynamo for redress, China should encourage full cooperation in progressive international multilateral regimes. It should seek peaceful bilateral relationships of mutual respect and benefit with all countries. China also faces difficult structural problems domestically. China will need to find the proper balance between universal modernization and the preservation of its rich heritage, between interaction with a changing world order and defending its national interests. China is the most progressive nation ideologically and it is ironic that it must scale back its progressive ideological commitment in order to achieve material progress. The challenge facing China is to not lose its progressive ideology merely to regain semi-colonial status.

China, by abandoning its revolutionary leadership in seeking major changes in the international system, forfeits its greatest strength. The 21st century will see the emergence of a new world order forged by irresistible populist progressive forces. It will challenge the legitimacy of residual institutions born of a bygone imperialistic age, from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It will herald revolutionary changes throughout the world led by technological breakthroughs. China, in its effort to counter Western demonization, no longer seeks to reform international institutions, but merely to expand its role within them, just as a claimant to major power status might be expected to do, often sounding like a conservative government. Alas, China in its quest for establishment acceptance, risks losing the respect and admiration of the progressive forces of the world.

A new US policy of containment of China will be counterproductive and futile. Such a policy will unnecessarily create a hostile China and force it again into the role of a garrison state. Asian governments would not again support such a US policy in the post-Cold War world. Yet Clinton's policy of "constructive engagement" was based on a dubious objective: changing China through "peaceful evolution". That policy required the militarization of the peace, by using trade as an ideological weapon of moral imperialism. It purports to change China in America's image by engaging it with trade. In the end, neither trade nor peace was served by this policy.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the transition of a bipolar world into a multipolar world. In the bipolar political world, trade was primarily a Western regime. The world was a sphere of contention between the two superpowers that did not trade between them. Aid from each superpower was the exclusive tool of ideological competition in the non-aligned world.

In a multipolar world, trade has become global, replacing aid as the recognized tool of economic development. American policy planners see world trade and globalization as a vehicle to a new world order under US tutelage in which market fundamentalism, finance capitalism and Western democratic principles rule. China sees foreign trade as a means to achieving world power status along mercantilist paths. These two separate and different objectives will inevitably clash. The US sees bilateral trade as a privilege to be granted to countries which subscribe to American values and in concert with American national interests. China sees bilateral trade with richer nations as a moral obligation of rich nations to equalize historical economic injustice.

Security threats faced by China in a multipolar world have not diminished. The main threat has shifted now to the form of ethnic separatism, mainly orchestrated by US interests in the name of individual freedom, human rights and democracy, at least up to the launching of the current war on terrorism. This is why reunification of Taiwan is a sine qua non of Chinese national security. Increasingly, China recognizes economic development as a key tool in combating ethnic separatism, not political suppression. Historically, a prosperous China attracted fringe ethnic groups to join the center for obvious benefits, and a poor center feeds centrifugal forces toward separatism. Much of Chinese history had been devoted to efforts to keep envious neighboring ethnic groups out.

Successive US administrations have recognized that US policies on China and Taiwan are based on the three communiques: the Shanghai Communique of 1972, the Normalization Communique of 1978 and the August 17, 1982, Communique. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the original draft by the administration having been bolstered with a legal guarantee of future arms sales to Taiwan, was passed by veto-proved margin by both houses of Congress. The language on the defense of Taiwan contradicts US positions declared in the three communiques. The TRA mandates in a legal framework a much closer security relationship with Taiwan and with its people than is contemplated by the three communiques. Putting obstacles in the path of peaceful reunification of China will not serve US interests in the long run.

Current policies in both capitals are locked in a collision track with a short fuse. An excessively hostile and belligerent approach to China in general and the Taiwan issue in particular will reinforce the prospect of China concluding that war with the US is unavoidable. Recent official government and military contacts between the US and Taiwan are viewed by China as direct violations of the three communiques. President George W Bush's reference to Taiwan as the Republic of China in a recent televised press conference was undeniably provocative. On the other hand, excessive appeasement on the part of the current Chinese leadership toward US belligerence will only reinforce the George Shultz notion of a helpless China, causing the US to push even harder its anti-China policies. The danger of miscalculation in both capitals is very real. No Chinese government can survive the independence of Taiwan.

Just as Washington ignored repeated messages from China about its intention to enter the Korean War in 1950 to the detriment of all, the Taiwan issue is shaping up to be a potential tragedy of miscalculation. The ideal solution is a peaceful solution. But there is no doubt that if military conflict is necessary, China will have no option but to use it, regardless of cost. Recent US policy on Taiwan appears to be based on a momentous miscalculation of this fact. It is a miscalculation that would lead to a military conflict with few winners. China can learn lessons from the way president John F Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis to pre-empt a nuclear confrontation with the USSR. The way to prevent US miscalculation over Taiwan is through credible Chinese brinkmanship. The new Chinese diplomatic offensive against US hegemony by strengthening bilateral ties with the European Union, Japan, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Venezuela should be a warning to US policy-makers on the geopolitical irony of US anti-China policies.

Allowing historical conditions of Taiwan to hamper a constructive relationship between China and the US is to lose the future in pursuit of the past. For China to pursue a course of domestic economic development and adopt a policy of promoting peace and stability, the Taiwan issue has to be settled first. Further delay will only raise the final cost and and make peaceful reunification more difficult.

April 25, 2002
Part 1: US, China: The politics of ambiguity