The Magazine


Aug 9, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 44 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Taipei, Taiwan

Watching the Clinton administration criticize Taiwan's president Lee Teng-hui for calling his government a "state," it is tempting to ask how Ronald Reagan would have reacted. This is far from an academic question, at a time when Republican presidential candidates and others are striving to formulate a post-Clinton foreign policy. It turns out that early in the 1980 campaign, candidate Reagan said he wanted to restore full diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China.

Speaking here last week to international scholars and policy analysts at a conference on security issues in the Taiwan Straits, President Lee was emphatic in reaffirming that there is a "special state-to-state relationship" between the People's Republic of China, on the mainland, and the Republic of China, on Taiwan. In prepared remarks and in answers to questions, a poised and confident Lee deliberately used words like "sovereignty" and "independent state" to refer to the ROC. In important ways, of course, Lee's comments reflect no real departure from his policies over the last six years, especially Taiwan's efforts to gain representation in the United Nations. As for the timing of the remarks, high-level but "unofficial" cross-straits talks are scheduled imminently, and Lee wants them conducted on the basis of equality.

Taiwan is unquestionably a "state" within any conventional use of that term in common parlance or in international law. It is a clearly defined territory with an identifiable population and a stable government carrying out typical governmental functions, able to meet international commitments and obligations. Exactly the same is true of the People's Republic. This assertion is not philosophical, but entirely practical and empirical. To acknowledge diplomatically that two "states" face each other across the Taiwan Straits is not to grant either one of them ethical approval or to imply that they should remain forever separate.

It is true that in 1980 some of his top campaign advisers ultimately talked Reagan out of espousing full diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. But today, almost twenty years later and in vastly different circumstances, what would a Reaganite policy on Taiwan look like? Both for compelling moral reasons and as a matter of U.S. national interests, the Reaganite answer is diplomatic recognition. This is not because the United States has any theological devotion to Taiwan, although Taiwan does have the advantage of being a capitalist democracy. Nor does it reflect automatic antipathy toward the PRC, although currently there is almost nothing good one can say about Beijing's policies, from its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to its nuclear espionage against the United States.

Rather, full diplomatic recognition of Taiwan would advance key American interests by ratifying the self-evident reality on the island, and by shattering the Clinton policy of deference toward Beijing. The United States desperately needs to create a balance-of-power structure in East Asia, building on existing alliances with Japan and South Korea. This would not be a traditional alliance like NATO, at least in the foreseeable future, but it would encompass something more than the ad hoc relations that now exist. Upgrading the Washington-Taipei relationship would be a major step toward creating such a regional balance.

By contrast, the Clinton administration believes that deferring to Beijing will prompt the leaders there to moderate the scarcely veiled threats with which they responded to President Lee's remarks. But Beijing has the Clinton administration's number, and each U.S. act of deference simply expands the PRC's appetite. Moreover, Japan and South Korea interpret our deference to Beijing as an implicit rejection of partnership with them. They conclude that the United States simply cannot be counted on to protect our mutual interests in the region. If this continues, Japan will be tempted to proceed more often unilaterally, no gain for Asian stability, while Seoul may gravitate into Beijing's orbit, before, and even more after, reunification with North Korea. None of this would be in America's interest, but it would flow inevitably from Washington's deference to the PRC.

Indeed, the only objection to full diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is that Beijing would erupt in rhetorical outrage, perhaps including threats of military force, and would attempt economic reprisals against the United States such as the cancellation of commercial contracts. At least for a period, our recognition of Taipei would leave us isolated. Some of our European friends would welcome an opportunity to profit at our expense, and others would cringe before Beijing's fulminations.