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CHINA: The Volatile Ties With Taiwan

Democracy Upsets One-China Policy

March 26, 2000|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a former State Department policy advisor, is a senior fellow and director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

WASHINGTON — At first glance, the stunning election of Taiwan opposition leader Chen Shui-bian, overturning five decades of rule by the Kuomintang, appears to be a political earthquake that could result in a military conflict with mainland China. After all, how can Chen, whose Democratic Progressive Party advocates formal independence, continue the "one China" policy that has guided official policy in Washington and Beijing, and remains in Taiwan's constitution? It was this fear that drove China to threaten to use force. In the thick of Taiwan's presidential campaign, Beijing issued a "White Paper" on Taiwan, followed by warnings aimed largely at Chen that "independence means war." A nervous Clinton administration dispatched special envoys to both Beijing and Taipei after the March 17 election.

To hear many pundits tell it, we will be on an inexorable path to conflict as soon as Chen takes office in May. But don't head for the bomb shelters yet.

Chen's victory was a watershed event for Taiwan, punctuating the political ascendance of native Taiwanese (85% of the population) over Kuomintang mainlanders. But the election was not about independence. Taiwan is not Kosovo, but a prosperous middle-class society. While there is a growing sense of Taiwanese identity, opinion polls show that 85% of the population prefers the status quo of de-facto independence to the almost certain Chinese military response that a formal declaration of independence would trigger. With more than $40 billion invested in mainland China and $26 billion in annual two-way trade, Taiwan has a large stake in stability. In fact, despite Beijing's ham-fisted bullying, Chen's razor-thin victory was achieved by abandoning his party's independence platform and moving to the center.

China's paper missiles were a milder version of its tactics during the Taiwan presidential election in 1996, when Beijing tested nuclear-capable missiles within 20 miles of the island. Ironically, just as in 1996, Beijing's tactics boomeranged, with indignant Taiwanese voters preferring Chen over Beijing's choice, James Soong. But one important difference this time around was that Beijing's White Paper added a new condition to previous statements that a formal declaration of independence would result in the use of force: Force could also be used if Taiwan does not engage in talks to peacefully move toward reunification. Thus, for the first time, Beijing hinted at a deadline, however vague, for reunification.

China's actions are right out of the playbook of its ancient strategist Sun Tzu: "The greatest victory," Sun wrote, "is to defeat the enemy without fighting." How much of Beijing's posturing is skillful use of political theater is not clear. The fear is that President Jiang Zemin, having presided over the return of Hong Kong and Macao, wants a trifecta before he retires in 2007.

In any case, Beijing's latest escalation of threats is part of a cycle of rising tensions in which the actions and reactions of Taiwan, China and the United States have created a negative dynamic that could lead to confrontation. What lies at the core of the current China-Taiwan tension is the well-established political reality that Taiwan is a democracy. This is a fact of life Beijing refuses to formally acknowledge, and the Clinton administration would prefer to ignore lest it complicate its pursuit of a legacy-making strategic partnership with China. Instead, both continue to embrace a one-China policy, the assumptions of which are increasingly inadequate.

The current policy was formulated during President Richard M. Nixon's opening to China in 1971. When the U.S. initiated ties with China in 1972, an artful political fiction was created to obfuscate the Taiwan problem. The joint communique declared, "The U.S. acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China." It added that, "The U.S. does not challenge that position." Jimmy Carter's administration reaffirmed this position when it normalized ties to China in 1978 and officially "derecognized" Taiwan. This was possible because both Beijing and Taipei claimed to be the government of all China. Congress responded by passing the Taiwan Relations Act, which governs unofficial relations with Taiwan.

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