Crisis Postponed?

The Kuomintang regained power in Taiwan’s presidential election last Saturday. A large majority backed the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou in the hope that he will restore normalcy to the island’s economic performance at home and political relations abroad. Taiwan’s currency and stock market jumped, reflecting widespread hope for the future. But the biggest sighs of relief at his election were probably in Beijing and Washington.

Alas, all this joyous hoopla demonstrates how Ma’s victory has dangerously raised expectations. It will take a miracle for him to simultaneously satisfy citizens in Taiwan, officials in the People’s Republic of China, and policymakers in the U.S. If he fails, instability is likely to again become the byword in the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan’s separation from the mainland goes back to Japan’s victory over the decrepit Chinese empire more than a century ago. Taiwan became the base for Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Nationalists after the Communists triumphed on the mainland in 1949. Throughout the Cold War the so-called Republic of China claimed to be the legitimate government of all China. That fiction was effectively buried in 1971, when the United Nations General Assembly displaced Chiang’s government in favor of Mao Zedong’s regime.

Most governments, including Washington in 1979, shifted their formal recognition to Beijing. Although an economic powerhouse, Taiwan remains in a diplomatic twilight zone. An ever wealthier PRC has skillfully constricted Taipei’s international space, countering Taipei’s longtime"checkbook" diplomacy with smaller states. At Beijing’s behest even the World Health Organization refuses to deal with Taiwan as a sovereign state, sacrificing global health concerns during the SARS outbreak to satisfy Chinese political demands.

Tension was particularly sharp between Beijing and the government of outgoing President Chen Shui-bian, the longtime opposition activist who broke the KMT’s monopoly on government power. He lost no opportunity to irritate, and often outrage, China. His Democratic Progressive Party long promoted Taiwanese independence, and Chen sought to formalize Taiwan’s separate existence. Equally important, however, Chen saw political advantage in playing to the increasingly independent Taiwanese identity. Indeed, by the end of his term, he could do little other than unleash anti-Chinese jabs after his political credibility was destroyed by a wide-ranging corruption scandal.

In any other year the DPP’s presidential candidate, former premier Frank Hsieh, would have been a formidable contender. But Chen’s sagging reputation, along with the island’s lagging economic growth, doomed Hsieh’s prospects. Even Beijing’s crackdown in Tibet, which cut against the KMT’s accommodationist policy toward the mainland, was too little, too late to derail Ma’s bandwagon.

Almost as significant as Ma’s victory was the failure of Chen’s referendum backing Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations as the Republic of Taiwan. The measure received 5 million votes, outpolling the KMT alternative, which advocated UN membership for the Republic of China, Taiwan’s current formal name (which is less provocative to Beijing). However, the referendum did not receive the constitutionally necessary majority of votes cast.

Superficially, the election appears to be a decisive rejection of Taiwanese nationalism. Businessmen in Taiwan look forward to closer economic relations across the Taiwan Strait. The PRC expects negotiations over reunification. Washington hopes for reduced tensions between Beijing and Taipei. Observed President George W. Bush: the election "provides a fresh opportunity" for the two sides to settle their differences.

Unfortunately, this newly apparent international bliss is likely to be short-lived.

The KMT’s softer image – ironic, since the Communist revolutionaries fought for years to oust the KMT’s Chiang Kai-shek from power – will help lower tensions with the PRC in the short-term. One of Ma’s first announcements was that his government would accept two pandas from Beijing. President Chen had rejected the gift, since accepting the animals would have meant validating China’s contention that Taiwan is part of China – the PRC normally loans, rather than gives, pandas to foreign nations.

Moreover, the two governments are likely to begin talking. The PRC refused to deal with President Chen, preventing any official communication. Indeed, Beijing pressed hard on Taiwan’s international oxygen line, limiting Taipei’s role in international forums and encouraging defections from the dwindling band of small nations, primarily located in Africa and Central America, which recognize the Republic of China. China might lift its foot a bit to encourage a dialogue.

Political as well as economic engagement between China and Taiwan would be a positive development, since today’s semi-cold war hurts both sides, and a hot war would be disastrous. Yet it won’t take very long for negotiations to highlight the underlying, and likely unbridgeable, conflict of visions. The "1992 consensus," as it is called, between the two governments recognizes only "one China," but acknowledges different definitions. That difference is decisive.

The PRC says "Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory" and ultimately must recognize Beijing’s authority. Ma has called for negotiations "on an equal footing," in which he will maintain that Taiwan is a separate political entity, related, but not subservient, to the PRC. Indeed, in responding to China’s crackdown in Tibet, Ma seemed to be attempting to out-Chen President Chen: Ma criticized a proposal from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as "arrogant, absurd, and self-righteous" and suggested boycotting the Olympic Games.

Indeed, the electoral repudiation of the DPP, though decisive, offers only a symbolic shift toward the mainland. The vast majority of Taiwanese do not want to be ruled by Beijing. They want their next government to avoid needless confrontation with the PRC and, even more important, to focus on the economy. But they are no more interested in sacrificing their sovereignty to China today than they were when they twice elected Chen president.

Until now China has been patient despite that attitude, accepting international ambiguity while resisting Taiwan’s efforts to formalize its independent status. But Chinese demands for a resolution of the issue have been growing increasingly insistent. Ma’s election may have reset Beijing’s clock, but the timepiece is still running, picking up speed as it goes. Ma’s hope of getting direct air links, lots of tourists, the withdrawal of Chinese missiles positioned across the Taiwan Strait, and a peace treaty, and all without resolving the sovereignty question – "The idea is to shelve the issue," he proclaims – seems optimistic at best.

Moreover, China’s newfound willingness to whisper sweet nothings in Taipei’s cannot hide Beijing’s ready mailed fist. As the Pentagon has noted in its annual reports on the Chinese military, the PRC is improving its military with an emphasis on intimidating Taiwan. Beijing’s harsh response to the recent protests in Tibet demonstrates the seriousness with which the Communist regime treats challenges to its sovereignty claims.

Not to worry, some say. Many Western analysts believe that the pragmatic Chinese would never risk their stake in the international economy by initiating military action; many American policymakers believe that by threatening U.S. involvement they will deter the PRC from dangerous adventurism.

However, China and Taiwan are unlikely to resolve the latter’s status by dispassionately assessing the legal case, such as the validity of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, by which China ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895. Nationalism runs strong in both Taiwan and China. The former has seen a steady growth in a separate Taiwanese identity. Most Taiwanese want close economic links with the mainland, but virtually no one wants to submit to Beijing’s political domination.

Chauvinistic sentiments are even more virulent in the PRC. China manipulates such attitudes, of course. But it does not control them. The Beijing government seemed to lag behind popular hostility toward America resulting from the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the EP-3 spy plane collision with a Chinese fighter. More recently, the Chinese public has been resolutely hostile toTibetan independence aspirations.

Indeed, much of the global Chinese Diaspora, including ethnic Chinese residing in America, celebrated Hong Kong’s return to the PRC. Similarly, even many anti-Communist émigrés who fled after the Revolution view Taiwan as part of China. Whether Chinese should think so is not important. They do think so, and they may be willing to sacrifice much to reclaim what is, in their view, rightfully China’s.

Which is why the Chinese government is crafting a military capable of deterring U.S. involvement. They are not hiding their efforts. Chen Zhou, a naval officer teaching at Beijing’s Academy of Military Science, said bluntly: "Our concern is to prevent an intervention by Americans during a crisis in the Taiwan Strait." In particular, that means acquiring an ability to take out U.S. aircraft carriers and strike the American homeland. The PRC hopes to put military hardware behind a Chinese general’s observation a few years ago that America would not risk Los Angeles for Taipei.

America’s options will only worsen. One is simply to abandon Taiwan and leave it to work out the best deal possible with Beijing. That’s a trashy way to treat a one-time ally that has built a democratic and capitalist system – one that actually offered the practical model that helped move Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to begin China’s reforms in the 1980s. Taiwan’s people deserve better.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is for Washington to promise to defend Taiwan, as President George W. Bush did shortly after taking office. His aides quickly walked back his remarks, formally returning U.S. policy to "strategic ambiguity." However, Washington’s security commitment to Taiwan appears to be strong, even if theoretically implicit.

Unfortunately, in this case, if deterrence failed, America would pay an extremely high price. China is not Iraq or Serbia, and it would not be a military pushover. The PRC’s ability to retaliate against U.S. interests – America’s economy and regional allies – already is great. Beijing is creating the capability to strike directly against the U.S. military and homeland.

Most importantly, China is a nuclear power and is improving its strategic arsenal. It need not be capable of an offensive attack on America; it need only possess a sufficient force to deter U.S. intervention. Obviously, it would be madness for either party to go nuclear, but the mere possibility of such an exchange would limit Washington’s options. The U.S. government would have to ask whether protecting Taiwan was worth the risk of escalation and mass destruction.

Today the American government takes a middle course of strategic ambiguity. Tell the Chinese that the U.S. might defend Taiwan. Try to convince the Taiwanese that they should be responsible and not provoke Beijing. Assume that America will never have to fulfill its implicit security guarantee.

Alas, strategic ambiguity may turn out to be the worst possible approach. The failure to make clear to China America’s commitment to Taiwan reduces the deterrent value. The failure to convince the Taiwanese that America’s commitment is limited, and would not protect irresponsible behavior, encourages Taipei to push hard for international recognition while letting its military spending lag. Yet should war erupt, whether by intention or through mistake, the U.S. would be automatically involved. The situation brings to mind the failure of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey in July 1914 to make clear to Germany his nation’s willingness to go to war if Berlin violated Belgium’s neutrality.

Washington needs an alternative strategy, one that simultaneously aids Taiwan in its desire to remain free while avoiding a clash with a growing, nuclear-armed China. The first component is America’s relationship with Taipei. The U.S. should make clear that Washington won’t guarantee Taiwan’s independence from Beijing. Americans rightly sympathize with Taiwan but ultimately should not risk Los Angeles – or Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, New York City, or Washington, D.C. – for Taipei. The risk might be small, but it will grow as China further modernizes its military. The cost if America’s bluff is called then will be extraordinarily high.

However, the U.S. should empower Taiwan to the extent possible. That means selling most any weapons to help Taipei preserve a potent if small deterrent force. A free-trade agreement would strengthen economic ties and further embed Taiwan in the international economic order. Washington should stop impeding the visit by Taiwanese officials to America and drop the ban on high level inter-governmental meetings. There’s no need to publicize what the PRC views as affronts to its dignity, but Washington should explain privately that who visits America and who talks with U.S. policymakers is "an internal affair" that does not concern the Chinese authorities.

Further, Washington should turn to diplomacy to forge an international coalition ready to sanction Beijing if necessary. Members should inform China that attempted coercion of Taiwan would put the PRC’s economic miracle at risk. Allied states throughout Asia and Europe, though unwilling to consider military action, should warn Beijing that they would respond with economic and diplomatic penalties to an attack on a democratic member of the international community. A wave of even trade restrictions, investment controls, and consumer boycotts could tip an already unstable Chinese economic system into recession or much worse, generating political unrest as well.

Despite the Taiwanese election results, the Taiwan Strait remains a region of extraordinary danger. And the U.S. is in the middle. Washington might hope that everyone will be reasonable, but that’s no policy. Sometimes even normally rational people do stupid things to advance what they believe to be their or their countries’ interests. A war between China and America, whether intentional or inadvertent, would be horrific. Washington needs to develop alternative strategies to aid Taiwan without endangering the U.S.

That won’t be easy. Especially if Taiwan’s recent election lulls policymakers around the Pacific into complacency. Ma’s victory does not mean that a new era of peace is at hand. Rather, his election merely pushes back the potential for conflict in the Taiwan Strait.