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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON TAIWAN

China's White Paper: Threat or Overture?

There are more carrots than sticks in the policy document; American overreaction serves none of the parties.

March 06, 2000|JONATHAN D. POLLACK | Jonathan D. Pollack is senior advisor for international policy at Rand

The recent release of a Chinese "white paper" on policy toward Taiwan has prompted growing worries in Washington about the prospect of a looming crisis in the Taiwan Strait. To many observers, the document prefigures a renewed campaign to compel Taipei toward negotiations with Beijing over reunification. Washington has responded with stern messages to Beijing about the "incalculable consequences" of any use of force against Taiwan, to which the Chinese have responded with threats directed against the United States.

The immediate source of U.S. concern is China's specification of the circumstances that would prompt Beijing to launch a direct attack against Taiwan. For the first time in an authoritative Chinese government document, Beijing has expressly stipulated that an indefinite refusal by Taiwan to open high-level discussions would compel China "to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force." This seems to many a virtual ultimatum to Taipei to "negotiate, or else."

It is time for all involved parties to curtail overheated policy rhetoric. The de-escalation should begin with a much more considered U.S. assessment of the white paper. It is a carefully drafted document, and undoubtedly the result of extensive deliberations. Its seemingly ominous warnings constitute a small portion of its content. Carrots, not sticks, clearly predominate.

The timing of the white paper's release hardly seems accidental. On March 18, Taiwan will elect a president to succeed Lee Teng-hui, the native-born Taiwanese whom Beijing has repeatedly accused of seeking Taiwan's permanent separation from the mainland. In Beijing's view, Lee has sought to contravene the commitment to the "one China" principle long shared by leaders in Beijing and Taipei.

According to Chinese officials, Lee's July 1999 insistence that any negotiations between the rival governments be conducted as a "special state-to-state relationship" constituted a virtual declaration of independence. Chinese leaders have long deemed a definitive move toward independence as justifying the use of force, especially if abetted by foreign forces.

The stakes for the United States in a cross-strait crisis could hardly be higher. In the weeks preceding Taiwan's first direct presidential election in March 1996, China undertook major military exercises and a series of unarmed missile tests that landed near Taiwan's principal ports. These actions prompted the United States to deploy two carrier battle groups east of Taiwan, portending renewed U.S. involvement in any future crisis between Taipei and Beijing.

Despite efforts of Washington and Beijing to avoid a direct U.S.-China confrontation, these possibilities have not diminished, and have if anything increased. China's continued buildup of highly accurate short-range ballistic missiles in coastal areas across from Taiwan has prompted growing calls in the Congress to strengthen U.S. defense links to Taiwan.

Proposed measures include accelerated arms sales to Taipei, collaboration with Taiwan on theater missile defense and passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would again formalize defense ties between Washington and Taipei severed when the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations at the end of the 1970s. Thus, trends on all three sides of the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle contain latent elements of a major policy disaster, all in the midst of the U.S. presidential campaign.

However, very little attention in Washington has focused on the overall content and tenor of the white paper. Perhaps most important, the document is directed at Taiwan, not the United States. It does not warn of an imminent crisis. It avoids specification of deadlines. It states that a resort to force "would only be the last choice made under compelled circumstances" and only in the event of "a grave turn of events." It does not insist that Taiwan revoke Lee's call for "special state-to-state relations." And, despite repeated claims to the contrary, it does not describe Taiwan as a "renegade province."

Yet Washington has reacted with immediate and (quite possibly) needless alarm. After years of recrimination and tension in cross-strait relations, the Chinese are holding out the prospect of a fresh start with Lee's successor. The white paper seems less an ultimatum and more an effort to open every conceivable door. Unlike 1996, the Chinese are issuing missives, not firing missiles, and Taipei recognizes the difference.

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