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Commentary | California Prospect / TOM PLATE

China: Renounce Force on Taiwan

Jiang could showcase himself as a confident world leader-- and keep the Taiwan matter local.

July 07, 1998|TOM PLATE | Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at UCLA.

TAIPEI — A new order is descending on Asia. This is no historical accident. Powers do not ascend if they are led by fools or idiots. China's President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji are neither. In the matter of the relentless Asian economic crisis, they have kept their hand steady. And in the matter of President Clinton's visit, they have kept their eye on the target, which was to persuade the world that they're made of more confident stuff than their parochial predecessors.

Even from the wary perspective of Taiwan, which stands to lose more than anybody in the realignment, Jiang's well-calibrated summit performance was viewed with admiration. Taiwan realizes it is no longer fencing with ideological deadheads. Yu-ming Shaw, a former director general of Taiwan's Government Information Office and now director of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University, noted: "When Clinton mentioned Tiananmen at the press conference, Jiang could have mentioned the Los Angeles riots, if he wanted to embarrass Clinton. But he didn't. He wanted to play the gracious host."

The tough question now for Jiang is what role he wants to play over Taiwan. The tough question for Taiwan is whether suddenly it finds itself on the wrong side of history. With but 21 million people, the offshore island is a democracy that will never be a superpower or threaten anyone militarily. Even so, the mainland Chinese view this capitalist success story as a renegade province whose status will be decided entirely between Beijing and Taipei. In parallel fashion, the United Nations and the United States refuse to recognize Taiwan as an official nation. So, it seems, it's settled. But even if you find no pathos at all in Taiwan's plight, accept that the manner of Beijing's resolution of this grating rebuke to mainland communism will reveal much about the new Jiang-Zhu government.

China insists military adventurism is for imperialists and that its only planned expansion is economic. Many Taiwanese, though, seem convinced that unless they capitulate to Beijing and agree to become another Hong Kong, they face invasion--or at least a continuous nightmare of political and security pressure. Taiwan's intelligence sources say that the mainland Chinese military establishment is geared up for two aims only: control of the countryside and eventual attack on Taiwan. Insists Gen. Wang Wen-hsieh, vice minister of national defense: "We note that the People's Liberation Army is modernizing mainly its navy and air force. Why are they doing that? This shows why we urgently need new arms and missiles, plus new submarines."

The Taiwan high command may be counting on Washington to provide the new technology, but in Shanghai, Clinton stated what everyone already understood: that his administration no longer wants the Taiwan tail to wag the Sino-U.S. dog. Clinton would rather not ship more arms if Beijing would give him a reason not to. Thus, Beijing would do itself a world of good if it would go slow with Taiwan.

Jason Hu, the island's forceful foreign minister, who agrees with the view that Taiwan needs a new, more dynamic foreign policy, worries that Beijing now will harden, not soften: "Is U.S. policy an invitation to Beijing to play rougher? . . . We are facing a diplomatic thunderstorm on the horizon." Laments Yao Eng-chi, a key figure in the Taiwanese ruling party's central policy committee: "I have no idea what Jiang is up to. But the [People's Republic of China] will take control of all of Asia if the U.S. is not careful."

Is this China's intent? As Chinese Hong Kong is slowly moving toward democracy and as Chinese Taiwan is nurturing its democracy, it would not take a fantasist to imagine that the mainland is headed in this direction, too. So why in the world would China want to reach out and crush its future? Despite Beijing's understandable desire to keep the issue local, Taiwan is unavoidably an international issue. For the U.S. business community, with its hopes for profits and business expansion with China; for the U.S. academic community, with its aspirations of new cooperation; and for our religious and human-rights communities, with all their many hopes, use of military force against Taiwan would set the clock back no less than if there were another destructive Tiananmen or convulsive Cultural Revolution.

There is a way out. Clinton (like it or not, Taiwan) has forsworn U.S. support for formal Taiwanese independence. Jiang, who at the summit press conference repeated China's commendable policy of no-first-use of nukes, should now swear off use of force against Taiwan. That's how a serenely confident power would behave. The Chinese should try it--they might like it. Certainly the rest of the world would.

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