"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.
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.
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.