Saturday, August 14, 1999

Asian clash
bewilders Washington

Politicians lack consensus
and White House lacks leadership
in China-Taiwan dispute

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


The firestorm raging between the island of Taiwan and mainland China since early July has loosed a cacophony of exhortations in the United States as to what American policy should be in this dangerous confrontation.

The Clinton administration and congressional leaders actively disagree. So do a former U.S. ambassador to Beijing and a former White House national security adviser. Scholars of China and specialists in think tanks are deeply divided. Newspaper editorials and columnists come down all over the lot.

The divisions cut across party lines. A Republican, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a Democrat, James Woolsey, the first director of central intelligence in the Clinton administration, have accused President Clinton of "appeasing" China, perhaps the most inflammatory term in the lexicon of international affairs.

Similarly, Helms and Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., have joined to propose legislation to increase U.S. military aid to Taiwan, an act the administration opposes.

Even within the administration are subtle differences. The White House and State Department, take a softer view toward Beijing while the Defense Department takes a harder view. Clinton has said "we would take very seriously any abridgment of the peaceful dialogue" between Beijing and Taipei. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a Republican, has said "there should be no military attempt to overwhelm or launch attacks against Taiwan."

These differences lead to two inescapable conclusions:

Bullet There is a singular absence of consensus among American political leaders and shapers of public opinion over policy toward Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a province of China while most Taiwanese want to remain separate.

Bullet There is a lack of leadership on the part of President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, who have fallen back on tired slogans as they have pleaded with Taiwan and China to "show restraint."

Thus, when Clinton meets with President Jiang Zemin of China at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in New Zealand next month, he will be standing on quicksand. In contrast, Jiang will have met with his politburo in their yearly conference at the seaside resort of Beidaihe and will have a solid phalanx behind him.

Longer run is another cause for anxiety. Ordinarily, vigorous debate is the mark of a robust American democracy. But the Chinese might miscalculate and think they could risk military action against Taiwan without U.S. intervention. To a lesser extent, the government in Taipei might miscalculate by reading only the U.S. signals that favor Taiwan.

Clinton's lack of strong policy guidance has appeared to put Americans in the position of favoring an authoritarian, economically corrupt, socially oppressive, and militarily aggressive regime in Beijing over a budding democratic, economically progressive, and socially open island nation that would like nothing more than to be left in peace.

The firestorm began on July 9, when the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, said that talks between his government and Beijing should be conducted as "special state-to-state relations." He thus nudged forward a concept that Taiwan adopted in 1991 with terms such as "separate political entity" or "the Republic of China is a complete sovereign state located on Taiwan."

Beijing has always objected to Lee's terms but this time went ballistic, figuratively and literally. Chinese leaders erupted with vitriolic outbursts, threatened military action, rattled nuclear bombs, fired off missile tests, and flew jet fighter sorties through the Taiwan Strait.

Americans, leaders and public alike, were caught unawares by both Lee's pronouncement and the explosion from Beijing.

James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China and the equivalent in the U.S. quasi-embassy in Taiwan, joined Arthur Waldron, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, to write: "Taiwan is a state; get over it." They called on Clinton to acknowledge his "one-China" policy was "archaic and unrealistic."

On the other side, Brent Scowcroft, who was President Bush's national security advisor, wrote that Taiwan "cannot expect our support in dealing with the possible consequences of a unilateral abrogation of the one-China policy." Chas. Freeman, a Pentagon official earlier in the Clinton administration, wrote, "Committed separatists in Taiwan seem intent on leading both their island and the United States toward a bloody rendezvous with Chinese nationalism."

House International Relations Chairman Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., led a bipartisan delegation to Taipei and reported, "It is our view that the two sides should engage in a dialogue with equals." But Sen. Charles Hagel, R-Neb., and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, questioned whether the U.S. should defend Taiwan: "Are we saying that if the Chinese send a missile over, we're at war with China?" He concluded. "I think we're rather careless."

Daniel Lynch of the University of Southern California asserted, "Anyone with even a shred of sense knows that the Republic of China, or ROC, on Taiwan is an independent country." But David Shambaugh of The George Washington University argued, "Taiwan's only realistic long-term hope is to establish maximum autonomy within a Chinese commonwealth."

The New York Times criticized both Taipei and Beijing and urged, "Mr. Lee should drop his talk of separate states and Beijing should abandon the idea of reunification by military force." That reflected the idea of an "interim agreement" that has been floating around Washington in which Taiwan would concede sovereignty to Beijing and Beijing would give up the threat of force. That notion is a non-starter since it would ask each to forsake a fundamental principle.

The Washington Post berated Beijing for "China's unwillingness to follow Taiwan on the path of democratization." The Economist, which is edited in London but widely read in the U.S., said, "To draw Taiwan into reunion, China will need to win the support of Taiwan's people. Its current behavior is a demonstration of how not to do it."

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times
correspondent in Asia now based in Honolulu.

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