The Magazine


Aug 30, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 47 • By ROSS TERRILL
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The United States should not heed accommodationists like Freeman but should move in the opposite direction. The starting point is that any reunification agenda must be tied to the will of the people involved. American policy should be agnostic as to whether the uniting of Taiwan and the mainland is good for the people concerned, the security of the region, and the interests of the United States. Further, in practical matters, we should increasingly lean toward an acceptance of Taiwan's separateness as a fact of life. The burden of proof should be on those who are prepared to see Taiwan go out of existence to show why this would be preferable to the current situation.

This policy would be compatible with supporting Taiwan's membership in a number of international organizations. It is worth recalling that the Taiwan Relations Act does not speak of "unofficial relations" between the de-recognized ROC and the United States. The legislation never uses the term. It is a victory for Beijing, with its relentless pressure for reunification, that Clinton officials are so quick to speak of the merely "unofficial relations" between Washington and Taipei. There is no inherent reason why every dealing U.S. officials have with Taiwan officials should be defensively labeled "unofficial" just because the two countries lack full diplomatic relations -- as the PRC and the United States did in 1972 when President Nixon made his historic trip to Beijing.

Does this argument overlook the fundamental importance of U.S.-China relations? Not at all. But as long as Beijing remains a Leninist dictatorship, no "strategic partnership" between it and ourselves is possible. One day there will be political change in China. Washington-Beijing relations will benefit, and it will be seen that Lee Teng-hui's democratic Taiwan was a crucial forerunner of a democratic main-land.

Such an adjusted Taiwan policy is not dangerous but workable because a course of escalating tension and conflict with the United States is not an option for a Chinese government that wishes to continue the marketization of its economy and its policy of smiles toward Southeast Asia. Whereas in the context of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the inclusion of Taiwan in the PRC could have validly been called reunification, in the 21st century it would probably be an act of expansionism on the part of the Chinese Communist state.

In the future, a Taiwan that was separate from China but non-hostile to it, as Finland was to the Soviet Union, or Panama is to the United States, could be in Beijing's interests. Such a Taiwan, perhaps entering into a security agreement with the mainland, might be less of a threat to China, and to the balance of power in East Asia, than an aggrieved, armed-to-the-teeth, foreign-backed Taiwan would be. But, over the years, we have seen that it suits the Chinese Communist state to keep the international situation tense.

Which brings us back to the larger picture of U.S.-China relations. Back in 1972, the Nixon-Mao compromise had three components: a strategic dialogue, with the Soviet threat as focus; a modus vivendi on Taiwan, in which China got the form (One China) and the United States got the substance (continuing ties with a separate Taiwan); and a tacit agreement to pay minimal attention to ideological differences.

Three events undermined the Nixon-Mao compromise. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the raison d'etre of the strategic dialogue. The coming of democracy in Taiwan gave the Island a new sense of itself as a sovereign country. And the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989 canceled the possibility of ignoring ideological differences between China and the United States. Henceforth our China policy required a new footing. But the Clinton period has produced no clear picture of what American interests are in our post-Soviet relationship with China.

The China problem is not the rise of China, but the rise of a China that, so far, remains Leninist. Nixon told Mao, "What is important is not a nation's internal political philosophy." But Nixon's maxim has been swept away by Tiananmen, the end of the Cold War, and the birth and growth of democracy in Taiwan.

We benefit from full engagement with China. But we also must build an equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific region that keeps in check, a China in the grip of dictatorial arrogance. Only a strong America with geopolitical vision can ensure that the Chinese Communists do not whittle away our leadership in Asia by a thousand cuts -- and grab Taiwan.

"Peace in the Taiwan area," said Lee Teng-hui truly in our talk, "is a common asset of the international community." But the military balance in the Taiwan Strait may be tipping in Beijing's favor. We are not called upon to solve the Taiwan problem, only to quietly back Taiwan as freedom intersects with Chinese civilization. Beijing is telling the world it is angry and plans to "do something" about the offense of Taiwan's separate existence. Washington's responsibility, given the Taiwan Relations Act, the high stakes of stability in East Asia, and our fundamental commitment to democracy, is to eschew ambiguity and make it crystal clear that a military move against Taiwan would be resisted by the United States. President Clinton should pick up the phone and say to President Jiang Zemin, in the words of President Reagan, that any attack by Beijing on Taiwan would damage U.S.-China relations "beyond repair."

In a world without the Soviet Union, we do not lack the power to hold China in balance -- and keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait. Do we have the will?

Ross Terrill, research associate at Harvard's Fairbank Center, is the author of China in Our Time and of the biographies Mao and Madame Mao, new editions of which are due out in September from Stanford University Press.