The death of Deng Xiaoping may have lit the fuse of a Chinese-American military confrontation that neither side wants but that both appear unable to prevent. As a result of domestic considerations, both China and America have locked themselves into positions over Taiwan.
Less than a year ago, the United States was showing off its macho power in the region by dispatching two carrier task forces to the waters around Taiwan while China was trying to intimidate the Taiwanese with a monthlong rocket barrage into these same seas.
All it would take right now for the situation to explode would be for the Taiwanese to declare their independence. If that should happen, China would see no alternative but to try to seize the island by force, and the United States would see no alternative but to act on its self-proclaimed mission as the guarantor of "stability" in East Asia.
The real issue is the Chinese civil war. In 1949, the Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-tung defeated the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, driving them into exile on Taiwan. Nonetheless, both the Communists and Nationalists agreed that there was only one China and that Taiwan was a part of it. They disagreed on who should rule that one China.
In their great strategic initiative to recognize these historical developments in Asia, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger acknowledged this situation. A few years later, Jimmy Carter recognized Beijing and broke relations with Taipei. From China's point of view, Taiwan today is sort of like a Chinese Texas: a place that would like to go its own way but knows that to do so would involve an unavoidable challenge to the sovereignty of the mother country.
Over the years, the Taiwanese have become the second-richest people in Asia after the Japanese. With the death of the original Nationalist exiles and the assimilation of their children, a popular democratization movement has swept Taiwan. Many Taiwanese want to break free from the mainland and declare their independence.
Unfortunately, any mainland Chinese regime that acquiesced in the independence of Taiwan would be overthrown. With the collapse of European and Russian communism, China has turned to Chinese nationalism for its legitimacy. "Remember Taiwan" could be as powerful a rallying cry in contemporary China as "Remember the Alamo" was in the U.S. at a comparable stage of its development.
With the reversion of Hong Kong and the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party in five years all scheduled for later this year, now complicated by the need to succeed Deng, China's leader Jiang Zemin has no room for maneuver. Moreover, many Chinese believe that President Clinton's diplomacy is aimed at a military alliance with Japan (Taiwan's former colonial overlord) to contain them. The United States keeps 100,000 troops deployed in East Asia even though the threat of the former Soviet Union has collapsed.
Meanwhile, American domestic politics have offered Taiwan an opportunity to use its wealth to influence American public opinion. In 1995, the Taiwan lobby spent $4.5 million to engineer virtually unanimous votes in both the Senate and the House to invite Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the U.S. under the pretext of attending an alumni meeting at Cornell University. The Chinese were infuriated that the White House permitted this, and everything that has happened since then--the Pentagon's dominant role in making American policy in East Asia, the mounting evidence of influence-peddling by rich Asians--has only deepened Chinese suspicions.
Thus the stage is set for a confrontation. The Chinese are willing to give the Taiwanese a great deal of autonomy so long as they do not cause China to lose face by declaring their independence. The United States has a huge stake in supporting China's present course of economic development and cooperation with the rest of Asia. But both China and the U.S. are so constrained by their domestic political situations that if the Taiwanese took this opportunity to declare their independence, China and the U.S. would conclude that they had no choice but to go to war.
What is desperately needed is quiet diplomacy between Chinese and American leaders. They must ensure that each side understands how the Taiwanese could force their hands, and they must find formulas that would both satisfy their domestic ideologues and maintain the peace that is indispensable to the long-term prosperity of the region.