The Magazine

Stand by Taiwan

From the December 22, 2003 issue: To avert such a crisis, the president needs to revert to his core principles and make clear that the United States supports the Taiwanese democracy.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

That is the silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud. Despite its disagreeable kowtow last week, the Bush administration can still maintain--and needs to insist--that it has not changed longstanding American policy toward Taiwan. After all, the president simply repeated old American warnings against Taiwan's changing the "status quo" regarding its sovereignty. But President Chen has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of taking such steps. In his inaugural address in May 2000, President Chen declared that as long as China "has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office, I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title, I will not push for the inclusion of the so-called 'state-to-state' description in the Constitution, and I will not promote a referendum to change the status quo in regards to the question of independence or unification." President Chen is abiding by that pledge. His proposed referendum has nothing to do with the issue of independence. It therefore does not run afoul of President Bush's admonition.

So there is a way out of this mess. President Chen will officially announce that the subject of the March referendum will indeed be China's missiles and not independence. The Bush administration should then make it clear, publicly, that it has no objection to the Taiwanese people's exercising their democratic right to hold a referendum on such a question. It should at the same time make clear the American view that China has no right to undertake or threaten military action in response to the referendum, and the American commitment to respond appropriately if China engages in any such threats--that we would "do whatever it took" to defend the Taiwanese democracy, to quote the president from a couple of years ago.

This is the right course for two reasons: First, it honors rather than betrays President Bush's commitment to support democracy and democratic practices around the world. Second, it deters the Chinese from believing they can get away with military intimidation this coming spring or in the future. For that is the great risk that Moriarty's policy has created. If China believes the United States opposes Taiwan's referendum, then Beijing's leaders may also believe that Bush will stand by and do nothing if they threaten or take military action. Other nations in Asia--and around the world--are also watching. Does it increase confidence in U.S. strength and leadership if they see China succeeding in pushing the United States around because Beijing doesn't like a democratic referendum nearby?

We believe that in fact Bush will not stand by and let China fire missiles at or near Taiwan this spring. But the present policy risks encouraging such a miscalculation by Beijing, and thus makes a crisis more likely. To avert such a crisis, the president needs to revert to his core principles and make clear that the United States supports the Taiwanese democracy. Here, as so often, prudence and honor offer the same counsel.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol