The Kuomintang regained power in Taiwan's presidential
election last Saturday. A large majority backed the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou in the
hope that he will restore normalcy to the island's economic performance at home
and political relations abroad. Taiwan's currency and stock market jumped, reflecting
widespread hope for the future. But the biggest sighs of relief at his election
were probably in Beijing and Washington.
Alas, all this joyous hoopla demonstrates how Ma's victory has dangerously
raised expectations. It will take a miracle for him to simultaneously satisfy
citizens in Taiwan, officials in the People's Republic of China, and policymakers
in the U.S. If he fails, instability is likely to again become the byword in
the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan's separation from the mainland goes back to Japan's victory over the
decrepit Chinese empire more than a century ago. Taiwan became the base for
Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalists after the Communists triumphed on the
mainland in 1949. Throughout the Cold War the so-called Republic of China claimed
to be the legitimate government of all China. That fiction was effectively buried
in 1971, when the United Nations General Assembly displaced Chiang's government
in favor of Mao Zedong's regime.
Most governments, including Washington in 1979, shifted their formal recognition
to Beijing. Although an economic powerhouse, Taiwan remains in a diplomatic
twilight zone. An ever wealthier PRC has skillfully constricted Taipei's international
space, countering Taipei's longtime"checkbook" diplomacy with smaller
states. At Beijing's behest even the World Health Organization refuses to deal
with Taiwan as a sovereign state, sacrificing global health concerns during
the SARS outbreak to satisfy Chinese political demands.
Tension was particularly sharp between Beijing and the government of outgoing
President Chen Shui-bian, the longtime opposition activist who broke the KMT's
monopoly on government power. He lost no opportunity to irritate, and often
outrage, China. His Democratic Progressive Party long promoted Taiwanese independence,
and Chen sought to formalize Taiwan's separate existence. Equally important,
however, Chen saw political advantage in playing to the increasingly independent
Taiwanese identity. Indeed, by the end of his term, he could do little other
than unleash anti-Chinese jabs after his political credibility was destroyed
by a wide-ranging corruption scandal.
In any other year the DPP's presidential candidate, former premier Frank Hsieh,
would have been a formidable contender. But Chen's sagging reputation, along
with the island's lagging economic growth, doomed Hsieh's prospects. Even Beijing's
crackdown in Tibet, which cut against the KMT's accommodationist policy toward
the mainland, was too little, too late to derail Ma's bandwagon.
Almost as significant as Ma's victory was the failure of Chen's referendum
backing Taiwan's membership in the United Nations as the Republic of Taiwan.
The measure received 5 million votes, outpolling the KMT alternative, which
advocated UN membership for the Republic of China, Taiwan's current formal name
(which is less provocative to Beijing). However, the referendum did not receive
the constitutionally necessary majority of votes cast.
Superficially, the election appears to be a decisive rejection of Taiwanese
nationalism. Businessmen in Taiwan look forward to closer economic relations
across the Taiwan Strait. The PRC expects negotiations over reunification. Washington
hopes for reduced tensions between Beijing and Taipei. Observed President George
W. Bush: the election "provides a fresh opportunity" for the two sides
to settle their differences.
Unfortunately, this newly apparent international bliss is likely to be short-lived.
The KMT's softer image – ironic, since the Communist revolutionaries fought for
years to oust the KMT's Chiang Kai-shek from power – will help lower tensions
with the PRC in the short-term. One of Ma's first announcements was that his
government would accept two pandas from Beijing. President Chen had rejected
the gift, since accepting the animals would have meant validating China's contention
that Taiwan is part of China – the PRC normally loans, rather than gives, pandas
to foreign nations.
Moreover, the two governments are likely to begin talking. The PRC refused
to deal with President Chen, preventing any official communication. Indeed,
Beijing pressed hard on Taiwan's international oxygen line, limiting Taipei's
role in international forums and encouraging defections from the dwindling band
of small nations, primarily located in Africa and Central America, which recognize
the Republic of China. China might lift its foot a bit to encourage a dialogue.
Political as well as economic engagement between China and Taiwan would be
a positive development, since today's semi-cold war hurts both sides, and a
hot war would be disastrous. Yet it won't take very long for negotiations to
highlight the underlying, and likely unbridgeable, conflict of visions. The
"1992 consensus," as it is called, between the two governments recognizes
only "one China," but acknowledges different definitions. That difference
The PRC says "Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory"
and ultimately must recognize Beijing's authority. Ma has called for negotiations
"on an equal footing," in which he will maintain that Taiwan is a
separate political entity, related, but not subservient, to the PRC. Indeed,
in responding to China's crackdown in Tibet, Ma seemed to be attempting to out-Chen
President Chen: Ma criticized a proposal from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as
"arrogant, absurd, and self-righteous" and suggested boycotting the
Indeed, the electoral repudiation of the DPP, though decisive, offers only
a symbolic shift toward the mainland. The vast majority of Taiwanese do not
want to be ruled by Beijing. They want their next government to avoid needless
confrontation with the PRC and, even more important, to focus on the economy.
But they are no more interested in sacrificing their sovereignty to China today
than they were when they twice elected Chen president.
Until now China has been patient despite that attitude, accepting international
ambiguity while resisting Taiwan's efforts to formalize its independent status.
But Chinese demands for a resolution of the issue have been growing increasingly
insistent. Ma's election may have reset Beijing's clock, but the timepiece is
still running, picking up speed as it goes. Ma's hope of getting direct air
links, lots of tourists, the withdrawal of Chinese missiles positioned across
the Taiwan Strait, and a peace treaty, and all without resolving the sovereignty
question – "The idea is to shelve the issue," he proclaims – seems optimistic
Moreover, China's newfound willingness to whisper sweet nothings in Taipei's
cannot hide Beijing's ready mailed fist. As
the Pentagon has noted in its annual reports on the Chinese military, the
PRC is improving its military with an emphasis on intimidating Taiwan. Beijing's
harsh response to the recent protests in Tibet demonstrates the seriousness
with which the Communist regime treats challenges to its sovereignty claims.
Not to worry, some say. Many Western analysts believe that the pragmatic Chinese
would never risk their stake in the international economy by initiating military
action; many American policymakers believe that by threatening U.S. involvement
they will deter the PRC from dangerous adventurism.
However, China and Taiwan are unlikely to resolve the latter's status by dispassionately
assessing the legal case, such
as the validity of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, by which China ceded Taiwan
to Japan in 1895. Nationalism runs strong in both Taiwan and China. The former
has seen a steady growth in a separate Taiwanese identity. Most Taiwanese want
close economic links with the mainland, but virtually no one wants to submit
to Beijing's political domination.
Chauvinistic sentiments are even more virulent in the PRC. China manipulates
such attitudes, of course. But it does not control them. The Beijing government
seemed to lag behind popular hostility toward America resulting from the bombing
of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the EP-3 spy plane collision with a Chinese
fighter. More recently, the Chinese public has been resolutely hostile toTibetan
Indeed, much of the global Chinese Diaspora, including ethnic Chinese residing
in America, celebrated Hong Kong's return to the PRC. Similarly, even many anti-Communist
émigrés who fled after the Revolution view Taiwan as part of China.
Whether Chinese should think so is not important. They do think so, and they
may be willing to sacrifice much to reclaim what is, in their view, rightfully
Which is why the Chinese government is crafting a military capable of deterring
U.S. involvement. They are not hiding their efforts. Chen
Zhou, a naval officer teaching at Beijing's Academy of Military Science, said
bluntly: "Our concern is to prevent an intervention by Americans during
a crisis in the Taiwan Strait." In particular, that means acquiring an
ability to take out U.S. aircraft carriers and strike the American homeland.
The PRC hopes to put military hardware behind a Chinese general's observation
a few years ago that America would not risk Los Angeles for Taipei.
America's options will only worsen. One is simply to abandon Taiwan and leave
it to work out the best deal possible with Beijing. That's a trashy way to treat
a one-time ally that has built a democratic and capitalist system – one that
actually offered the practical model that helped move Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping
to begin China's reforms in the 1980s. Taiwan's people deserve better.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is for Washington to promise to defend
President George W. Bush did shortly after taking office. His aides quickly
walked back his remarks, formally returning U.S. policy to "strategic ambiguity."
However, Washington's security commitment to Taiwan appears to be strong, even
if theoretically implicit.
Unfortunately, in this case, if deterrence failed, America would pay an extremely
high price. China is not Iraq or Serbia, and it would not be a military pushover.
The PRC's ability to retaliate against U.S. interests – America's economy and
regional allies – already is great. Beijing is creating the capability to strike
directly against the U.S. military and homeland.
Most importantly, China is a nuclear power and is improving its strategic arsenal.
It need not be capable of an offensive attack on America; it need only possess
a sufficient force to deter U.S. intervention. Obviously, it would be madness
for either party to go nuclear, but the mere possibility of such an exchange
would limit Washington's options. The U.S. government would have to ask whether
protecting Taiwan was worth the risk of escalation and mass destruction.
Today the American government takes a middle course of strategic ambiguity.
Tell the Chinese that the U.S. might defend Taiwan. Try to convince the Taiwanese
that they should be responsible and not provoke Beijing. Assume that America
will never have to fulfill its implicit security guarantee.
Alas, strategic ambiguity may turn out to be the worst possible approach. The
failure to make clear to China America's commitment to Taiwan reduces the deterrent
value. The failure to convince the Taiwanese that America's commitment is limited,
and would not protect irresponsible behavior, encourages Taipei to push hard
for international recognition while letting its military spending lag. Yet should
war erupt, whether by intention or through mistake, the U.S. would be automatically
involved. The situation brings to mind the failure of British Foreign Secretary
Sir Edward Grey in July 1914 to make clear to Germany his nation's willingness
to go to war if Berlin violated Belgium's neutrality.
Washington needs an alternative strategy, one that simultaneously aids Taiwan
in its desire to remain free while avoiding a clash with a growing, nuclear-armed
China. The first component is America's relationship with Taipei. The U.S. should
make clear that Washington won't guarantee Taiwan's independence from Beijing.
Americans rightly sympathize with Taiwan but ultimately should not risk Los
Angeles – or Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, New York City, or Washington, D.C. –
for Taipei. The risk might be small, but it will grow as China further modernizes
its military. The cost if America's bluff is called then will be extraordinarily
However, the U.S. should empower Taiwan to the extent possible. That means
selling most any weapons to help Taipei preserve a potent if small deterrent
force. A free-trade agreement would strengthen economic ties and further embed
Taiwan in the international economic order. Washington should stop impeding
the visit by Taiwanese officials to America and drop the ban on high level inter-governmental
meetings. There's no need to publicize what the PRC views as affronts to its
dignity, but Washington should explain privately that who visits America and
who talks with U.S. policymakers is "an internal affair" that does
not concern the Chinese authorities.
Further, Washington should turn to diplomacy to forge an international coalition
ready to sanction Beijing if necessary. Members should inform China that attempted
coercion of Taiwan would put the PRC's economic miracle at risk. Allied states
throughout Asia and Europe, though unwilling to consider military action, should
warn Beijing that they would respond with economic and diplomatic penalties
to an attack on a democratic member of the international community. A wave of
even trade restrictions, investment controls, and consumer boycotts could tip
an already unstable Chinese economic system into recession or much worse, generating
political unrest as well.
Despite the Taiwanese election results, the Taiwan Strait remains a region
of extraordinary danger. And the U.S. is in the middle. Washington might hope
that everyone will be reasonable, but that's no policy. Sometimes even normally
rational people do stupid things to advance what they believe to be their or
their countries' interests. A war between China and America, whether intentional
or inadvertent, would be horrific. Washington needs to develop alternative strategies
to aid Taiwan without endangering the U.S.
That won't be easy. Especially if Taiwan's recent election lulls policymakers
around the Pacific into complacency. Ma's victory does not mean that a new era
of peace is at hand. Rather, his election merely pushes back the potential for
conflict in the Taiwan Strait.