China's premier, Wen Jiabao, comes to Washington this week with a tough item atop his agenda: to tell the United States to rein in Taiwan's democracy and keep the island republic from replacing its constitution, which proclaims Taiwan as the legal government of all China -- or risk war in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is a multiparty democracy with a popularly elected president. Its people go to the polls in March to reelect their leader or select a new head of state. This is something the people of China don't get to do. But that's not what upsets Beijing. China's current saber rattling arises because the major political parties on Taiwan are discussing constitutional changes.
When Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing to Mao Tse-tung's communist armies -- but still claiming to be China's rightful ruler -- he brought along the constitution he had pushed through in Nanking in 1947. So the Legislature he set up on Taiwan had seats for all the mainland constituencies, filled by those elected in 1948. If an elected official died, the runner-up or the runner-up's runner-up took over. As late as 1990 you could still meet some oldster in Taiwan who introduced himself as the member from Shanghai or Chungking, because no new elections could be held until the mainland was recaptured.
That farce ended in the early 1990s after Chiang and his son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, died. Martial law was gone, the secret police was disbanded and political were prisoners released. Slowly but surely, those who had retreated with the Chiangs lost influence over the Taiwanese, whose ancestors had settled the island before the American Revolution.
The reformed Legislature now represents only constituencies in Taiwan. Direct, popular election of the president began in 1996, something new in all the millenniums of ethnic Chinese political practice. But all of this comes about under a constitution that still proclaims the Republic of China -- Taiwan -- as the sole legal government of all of China.
You would think dropping that claim would please Beijing. But you would be wrong because a constitution written for a Taiwan that lays no claim to rule all of China, that admitted it does not control Canton or Shanghai, would be a constitution for ... Taiwan. A constitution for a Taiwan that might even say the island republic is an independent nation and not a part of the People's Republic of China.
Never mind that this happens to be fact or that the PRC has never controlled Taiwan. Wen and the PRC hold to an often- repeated formula: There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. And China's only legal government is the people's government in Beijing. Beijing calls this "the sacred One China Principle."
So what's the U.S. role in all this? Because President Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing to gain an ally against the Soviet Union, successive administrations have said the U.S. follows a "one-China policy."
But our "policy" is not at all like Beijing's "principle." Washington's "one-China policy" says we have diplomatic relations only with Beijing, though we maintain all other relations with Taipei, and we "acknowledge" China's claim to the island, but we make no statement about Taiwan's status. There is one stipulation: We insist that any change in that status must be accomplished peacefully, and with the consent of Taiwan's people. In fact, we have a law that says these things: the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by the House and Senate in 1979.
So now we have China's premier, in office only a few months and with the old guard peering over his shoulder, coming to demand that the U.S. warn the Taiwanese they're playing with fire if they proceed to dump the 1947 constitution. Otherwise, Wen will say, if war comes to the Taiwan Strait, it will be America's responsibility. That Washington last week pressured Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian to back away from a referendum on independence apparently wasn't good enough.
In reply, President Bush should quote to Wen the words of the Taiwan Relations Act: The United States will "consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States." He might replay his April 2000 statement about doing whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself if attacked.
But in any case, the president should add: "It really is time, even past time, for your government to sit down and talk directly to the government on Taiwan -- without preconditions, without threats. And without expecting the United States to carry your water for you."
Harvey Feldman is a retired ambassador who was one of the authors of the Taiwan Relations Act. He is now senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Asia Studies Center.