The Magazine


Aug 30, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 47 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Beijing maneuvered patiently for two decades, carefully exploiting the gap between theory and practice in Taiwan's relation to the mainland. As a result, when Beijing negotiated recognition with dozens of nations in the 1970s, it succeeded in persuading one and all to accept the unfinished Chinese civil war as the sole context for consideration of the Taiwan issue. The mirage of massive trade with the PRC held many nations in thrall. Fear was widespread that without Beijing's cooperation the wars in Indochina might engulf Southeast Asia and the world powers. So the mantra worked, confirming Nikita Khrushchev's grumpy respect for Beijing's use of political rhetoric, as "a sort of voodoo belief in the power of curses and incantations."

Crucially, Chiang Kai-shek's outlook and the political situation within Taiwan during the 1970s lent credence to the Chinese Communists' view, making it plausible for countries that extended recognition to Beijing to settle for the One China concept. But developments within Taiwan starting in the 1980s -- in particular the coming of democracy in the '90s -- have created a fresh context.

"I must say quite simply," said President Lee in our discussion on July 28, "I'm the president of a country. I must stand up for the national interest of this country." Every little while, Lee cuts a thin slice off the salami of reunification and declares with a grin that the salami is unchanged. For this we should salute him. The fiction of One China has lost its credibility, and Lee's mode of coping with its erosion is reasonable.

President Clinton has proved inconstant on Taiwan. He is apparently unable to discern the difference between Washington's "acknowledging" in 1972 that "Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait" saw Taiwan as part of China and Washington's "embracing a One China policy," as he said it had done when he was in China in June 1998. Equally, he failed to distinguish between avoiding support for Taiwan's recognition as a nation and standing in the way of such recognition. Or between leaving Taiwan's relationship with the PRC up to the two sides and himself declaring reunification to be the American agenda, as he did in his remarks at Beijing University. He needlessly breathed new life into Beijing's concept of One China.

Some in Washington display a stunning failure to grasp the meaning of the transformation of the Taiwan issue in the 1990s. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1998, Charles W. Freeman Jr. asserted:

Until President Lee Tenghui's visit to the United States in June 1995, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland had been moving toward mutual accommodation through informal economic and cultural exchanges and dialogue. On both sides of the strait there was a consensus on the ideal of "One China" and the imperative of realizing it through some form of reunification. This consensus, endorsed by the United States, kept the peace and fostered an atmosphere conducive to negotiation. The consensus has now collapsed. Taiwan seems convinced it can campaign for independence with the military backing of the United States.

But to say that President Lee's visit to Cornell University in 1995 is what transformed the Taiwan issue is to overlook the significance for international relations of the coming of democracy to Taiwan. To speak of a consensus on the "imperative" of achieving One China is a piece of elitism that disregards a large segment of grass-roots sentiment in Taiwan. And it is simply false to say the United States has ever endorsed the "imperative" of reunification. To complain that Lee is campaigning for independence and expecting American military backing for this does no justice to the patience with which Lee has set out the conditions under which reunification is imaginable.

Freeman declared: "No unilateral change in the status quo -- precipitated by either side -- is acceptable." But is there not a difference between a change in the status quo brought about by a military invasion -- one of Beijing's ideas -- and a change brought about by the will of the people expressed in free elections -- which is what led to the new thinking in Taiwan?

Beijing pressures Taiwan with military flourishes, didactic tirades, and vetoes on its international activity. Clinton, except for an excellent show of military resolve in the March 1996 crisis, has allowed America to be browbeaten and nibbled away at by a haughty, unelected Chinese government. That Beijing has done so well in the propaganda battles of the post-Soviet world is a terrible reproach to Washington.