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Don't Let War Become a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

China: Beijing, Taipei and the U.S. need to reaffirm that mutually agreeable terms for reunification are conceivable.

March 24, 2000|PAUL HEER | Paul Heer is a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

The sound and the fury of the latest crisis over Taiwan, prompted by Beijing's recent "white paper" on the issue and Taiwan's election of a nominally pro-independence president, reveal how far Beijing, Taipei and Washington are from a mutual understanding of the fundamental issues at stake across the Taiwan Strait. All three sides are talking past each other, and none of them is addressing the core problem.

Beijing, for example, is demanding negotiations on the basis of "one China," while Taipei is invoking self-determination and Washington is calling for peaceful resolution. Belief in the myth that these three concepts are somehow irreconcilable has prevented the parties from addressing the problem in a constructive way. War will become inevitable if the current cycle of recrimination is not broken.

Contrary to most of the headlines, Beijing's white paper was not primarily about the threat of force, which is not new, but about the absence of reunification talks. The question we should be asking is not why Beijing is threatening Taiwan, but why those talks aren't happening. Beijing's threats are only one of the reasons, and not the most basic one. The primary reason may be that there no longer exists any basis for reunification.

Taiwan has balked at Beijing's efforts to force resumption of dialogue, ostensibly because Beijing has offered it no positive incentive. Another question no one is asking, however, is whether any incentive would be sufficient: whether Taiwan is genuinely interested in reunification--at any time, by any definition or under any circumstances.

This month's election is being cited as the latest evidence that the island's political evolution over the past 20 years has eroded the Taiwan people's interest in reunification. If this is true, then one of the historical assumptions of U.S. policy--that reunification is the ultimate aspiration of both sides--is no longer valid. This would have profound implications because Beijing predicated its diplomatic recognition of the United States on an understanding that Washington would support reunification as long as it occurred peacefully.

Under the circumstances, Washington needs to clarify the U.S. position on "one China" and reunification based solely on our strategic national interests, regardless of whether that position coincides with either Taipei's or Beijing's. Maintaining strategic ambiguity on the potential U.S. response to a hypothetical conflict is one thing, but ambiguity or uncertainty in the underlying policy itself is dangerous.

In eliminating any uncertainty, we should be prepared to deal with the possibility that Taipei's position on reunification has drifted away from ours, or that our strategic interests dictate a position on "one China" that happens to coincide with Beijing's. On the latter score, it would be folly to automatically define our interests as the opposite of whatever Beijing's are. That would virtually guarantee a war.

The fact is that Beijing subscribes to all three of the principles that ostensibly underlie U.S. policy toward Taiwan: "one China," encouragement of cross-strait talks and peaceful resolution. What Beijing essentially has warned is that if Taiwan and/or the United States diverge from the first two, we should not be surprised if China abandons the third.

This worst-case scenario could be avoided if all three sides, and especially the new Taiwan president, reaffirmed that mutually agreeable terms for reunification are conceivable. This should be sufficient basis for resuming cross-strait talks, which could and should be open-ended. All the details and definitions would be subject to negotiation, and Washington could still use its military deterrent to ensure that Taiwan is not forced to accept anything against its will.

This path would be further cleared if the three sides also dispense with several other myths: that Beijing is eager to attack Taiwan, that reunification is incompatible with Taiwan's democracy and that China's interests in Taiwan are fundamentally incompatible with vital U.S. interests.

Unfortunately, all these myths appear firmly entrenched. Moreover, Taiwan's president-elect and the Chinese president already are drawing battle lines over the "one China" principle, and few leaders outside the mainland are entertaining the possibility that reunification could ever happen by mutual consent. Instead, Beijing perceives that Taiwan has withdrawn from the "one China" framework with Washington's tacit compliance, and the U.S. political environment may have become too volatile to facilitate reasonable debate or strategic decision-making. Under these circumstances, war with China over Taiwan is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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