The Magazine


Aug 30, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 47 • By ROSS TERRILL
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"EVERYONE NOW UNDERSTANDS there is a problem with Taiwan's status," said President Lee Teng-hui in a recent conversation with American visitors. But in fact, not everyone does seem to understand this. The United States has become locked into a Beijing-flavored One China policy based on a fiction. Once, it may have been a useful fiction. Now it has become a dangerous one.

Taiwan has proved one of the most intractable challenges of the post-Soviet Union world. The issue was born with the Cold War, and the widespread collapse of communism and surge of democracy should give us a clue to its effective management. Our Cold War was not with Russia but with communism. Our problem with China also is communism. In Asia, Cold War still freezes the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing has always embedded its mantra of "reunification" in the rhetoric of popular will and social justice. Said the young Mao Zedong, urging independence for Hunan Province in 1920: "I would give my support [to the unity of China] if there were a thorough and general revolution in China, but this is not possible. . . . Therefore . . . we cannot start with the whole, but must start with the parts."

The unity of China viewed as an ideal, or as an unstoppable historical locomotive, does not outweigh the imperatives of popular will and social justice. Not for Mao in 1920; nor for the Taiwanese in 1999.

Shortly before talking with American visitors at a conference in Taipei in July sponsored by Taiwan's 21st Century Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, President Lee had bamboozled the world with a new location describing the Taiwan-China relationship: "special state-to-state relations." Such opaqueness in formulations about "state" and "nation" in relation to China is par for the course. The very term "China" is historically a slippery one. Empire, civilization, nation? Certainly for most of its history "China" has not viewed itself as merely one nation among many.

The push by the Chinese Communist party to include Taiwan in the newly established People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949-50 had a moral dimension. Taiwan in the 1940s stood in an ambiguous relation to a China which historically had cared relatively little for it. But this ambiguity was eclipsed by the fact that the losing party in the civil war, the Nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan and tried to maintain its existence there as the Republic of China (ROC).

That Beijing possessed a momentum that would soon secure Taiwan for the tender mercies of Maoism was strongly suggested by the absence of any U.S. warning not to incorporate the island. President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson both indicated in January 1950 that the United States would maintain a hands-off approach to Korea and Taiwan -- words we now know were carefully noted in Moscow and Beijing.

Then in June 1950, Taiwan became a large issue when North Korean dictator Kim II Sung attacked South Korea. Washington's Korea and Taiwan policies were turned on their heads.

Beijing implicitly accepted the new U.S. firmness on Taiwan. After the United States intervened in Korea, and China was preparing to do the same, Mao sent a telegram to the head of the New China News Agency ordering him to refrain from any public statement that Taiwan would be taken within a given period of time: "Please note that from now on, we will only speak about our intention of attacking Taiwan and Tibet, but say nothing of the timing of the attack."

The events of 1949-50 have relevance for today. The Truman-Acheson East Asia policy of January 1950 failed to deter looming aggression. When the policy was changed in June 1950, the world saw a clear-cut case of successful deterrence in Mao's retreat from a timetable for acquiring Taiwan. When necessity pressed upon it, the Chinese Communist party proved flexible about the unification of Taiwan with the main-land. Only later propaganda has cast unification as an uncompromisable cause.

In the 1950s, a gap opened up between Beijing's mantra of reunification ("We Shall Certainly Liberate Taiwan") and China's actual behavior on this issue. The bark was fearsome, but the bites were trivial. It was the American military link with Taiwan and with Japan that deterred Beijing from acting on its ambition to grab Taiwan.