A good deal of the fretting over what might or might not turn out to be an increasing level of hostility between mainland China and Taiwan over the arcane (and currently irrelevant) question of whether everybody still believes in "One China" is related to the apparently irresistible urge of the U.S. State Department to want to choose one side over the other. It is difficult to believe that the impulse doesn’t complicate the situation and make the likelihood of violence higher.
For many decades after the triumph of communism on the mainland and the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces to Taiwan, the United States openly backed Taiwan. Millions in foreign aid and military assistance were lavished on the regime possibly strengthening it as a counterbalance to a mainland regime and perhaps deterring the mainland from closer relations with the Soviet Union, and almost certainly delaying the onset of a reasonably free market system and more democratic political practices. Taiwan’s economy, like South Korea’s, started its real boom after the United States cut off economic assistance. American support for Taiwan weakened noticeably after Nixon undertook the "opening" to Red China, but the island nation still had friends in both political parties. Jimmy Carter might not have minded simply de-recognizing Taiwan and consigning it to some metaphorical ash heap of history when he formally recognized the mainland, but congressional friends of Taiwan pushed through the Taiwan Relations Act, under which fictitiously private "institutes" were created to carry on what would otherwise have been normal diplomatic and trade relations.
The US continued to sell military hardware and to provide some kinds of technical and training military help. And although the act was actually rather vague on the matter, most people assumed that if the mainland actually launched a military attack on Taiwan the United States would respond in kind.
At the same time, through the 1980s and early 1990s, various interests in the United States conducted an off-again-on-again love affair with the mainland. One can understand the raw economic interest of certain large American corporations, even though there had been a history of heavy Western investment in hopes of huge profits from the world’s largest market followed by disappointment. And there is little question that genuine economic liberalization took place in some mainland provinces.
But a good deal of the enthusiasm for China interrupted from time to time by unpleasantness like the Tienanmen massacre was both nostalgic and utopian, a reflection of the fact that grown-up Sixties radicals had always had a soft spot for Mao and his cultural revolutions, a willingness to overlook atrocities if they were committed by faddishly leftist regimes.
It’s hard not to believe that some of that unfocused Sixties nostalgia has had an impact on the Clinton administration’s approach to the mainland. The Clintonites have disappointed China’s leaders, sometimes carelessly and cynically, as in the refusal to entertain more serious discussion of membership in the World Trade Organization after significant Chinese concessions this Spring, mainly due to domestic US political considerations. But the instinct, even in a regime that can bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade without batting an eye, is to toady.
Thus when Taiwanese president Lee started murmuring about relations between Beijing and Taipei having a special state to state character, the Clintonites blamed Taiwan for challenging the comforting myth of One China a myth that had its diplomatic uses for about 15 years after the 1974 Shangai communiqué but was becoming increasingly surreal. Numerous news reports have quoted unnamed (and occasionally named) US officials to the effect that US diplomats were delivering stern lectures to the Taiwanese, pressuring them to soften their position and avoid stirring up the mainland government.
Thus the desire to choose up sides. It isn’t really necessary. The Chinese are much better at protracted (over decades) diplomatic and power-politics struggles than any American administration will ever be. They on both sides of the Taiwan Straits will determine how the current dispute finally shakes out, probably years or decades into the future, and the opinion of the United States in the matter will amount to little more than a gnat’s buzzing.
This might have been an occasion to be neutral in the dispute, preferably as part of an overall policy shift toward less meddling in other countries’ affairs. Even a shift toward real neutrality in the special case of Taiwan and China, leaving the rest of US policy untouched, however, would have been healthy. Most Asians expect the United States to poke, prod and try to manipulate developments in China (and the rest of Asia), in part because the US has always said it wanted to be a bona fide "Pacific Power." But nobody really knows what to expect in the China-Taiwan dispute. A lot of history suggests a tilt toward Taiwan but recent history suggests a mainland tilt.
Wouldn’t it have been fun to say, in effect, that the US is strong enough and confident enough to allow the Chinese to settle this dispute for themselves, meantime carrying on commercial relations with both sides and occasionally trying to be helpful in an unobtrusive manner. We could sell all manner of things to both sides, urge them to settle disputes without violence, but otherwise avoid choosing a side to back. That would actually reduce the geopolitical stakes, making the ultimate resolution of Taiwan’s status a regional question rather than a global one about which "global players" feel a need to assert themselves.
August 20 marked the first anniversary of the US launch of cruise missiles against Sudan and Afghanistan. It shouldn’t be forgotten. The most astounding miscalculation if miscalculation it was that day was the targeting of the al-Shifa chemical plant in Sudan. At first administration officials said they had indisputable proof that the plant was involved in producing chemical weapons and that it was linked to international freelance terrorist Osama bin Laden. All of these allegations turned out to be inaccurate and the owner of the plant has filed suit against the US government.
As Jason Vest, a Washington correspondent for Village Voice has commented, "It’s difficult to say what is more amazing: the apparently glaring failures in the intelligence operation that led to the al-Shifa plant being fingered as a chemical weapons site; the actual bombing of the factory; the Clinton administration’s over-the-top pattern of obfuscation and contradiction in explaining its rationale for the bombing; Congress’ less-than-zealous attitude about holding the administration accountable for an unnecessarily destructive act (lying about sex gets you an independent counsel, but bombing another country with shoddy evidence and lying about it doesn’t?); the mainstream media’s unwillingness to hammer on this issue; or the public’s lack of interest."
I would add the breathtaking cynicism at the very top of the Clinton administration. The best (albeit incomplete) evidence produced to date suggests that plenty of people in the administration had doubts about targeting the pharmaceutical plant, but they knew the commander in chief wanted a target hit (some say he made the final decision personally after hearing the objections). Monica’s testimony was scheduled and a foreign diversion was needed. What matter that it might not be the right target or might be an utterly innocent victim?
Perhaps it’s less harmful over the long run to make foreign policy cynically and heedlessly as part of a domestic political dispute rather than in pursuit of some overarching imperial design. But it’s morally, strategically and politically reprehensible, the Clinton administration did and will likely do it again. All the more reason for the rest of us not to forget.
CLUSTERS OF DEATH
Perhaps I’m just terminally naive, but I’m a bit surprised at the dearth of attention by the mainstream media to the thousands of cluster bombs dropped on Yugoslavia that have been a continuing source of death and dismemberment, especially of curious children. The problem hasn’t been ignored completely the Washington Post did a pretty good story about a month ago but it deserves more attention.
Cluster bombs, of course, are lightweight bomblets, as many as 200 of which are bundled together in a single bomb casing, then carried to earth individually on tiny parachutes. NATO officials say about 1,100 cluster bombs, containing a total of more than 200,000 bomblets, were dropped on Yugoslavia and Kosovo. Human Rights Watch estimates there are 11,000 unexploded cluster munitions in Kosovo and Serbia. They are often not easily recovered because of their tendency to drift off course or to become caught on trees, in brush or on roofs.
Bright yellow, shaped like soda cans with tiny, cute little parachutes on top, the unexploded cluster bombs are especially attractive to children. Some canisters can spray incendiary material to start fires, some spew chunks of molten metal that can pierce tanks, some are filled with shrapnel. All can make short work of human flesh and bone. One incident of children playing with one bomb left two dead and seven injured, two critically. At least 200 people have been killed or injured by unexploded bombs and mines half left behind by Serb troops, half dropped by NATO, according to the World Health Organization.
Other weapons have dealt more death, of course. But those cluster bombs are especially insidious. Both military and humanitarian organizations have vowed to remove mines and bombs. How about some reports on their progress?