For this China hand, who has been outspokenly sympathetic towards Taiwan for the past quarter century, a brief visit to that democratic island nation earlier this month was deeply dispiriting.
For many years I had shared the anxious concerns of Taiwan’s leaders that one day the United States might carelessly or cynically betray its commitments to Taiwan and thereby make that free and thriving island democracy even more vulnerable to China’s driving ambition to conquer it. But after meeting and listening to President Chen Shui-bian and some of his closest supporters and advisers, I sadly concluded that, instead, it was President Chen who had betrayed the United States. He did so by recklessly yet quite consciously promoting his own political fortunes at the expense of the vital national interests of the United States.
Last week at the White House, President George W. Bush rebuked President Chen by name in the presence of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. This prompted bitter responses from many U.S. China hands who share my view that China’s strategic ambitions pose a dangerous threat not only to democratic Taiwan but also to the rest of East Asia and ultimately to the United States, which has a vital national interest in counterbalancing a rising China.
My fellow China hawks got it wrong. Judging by what I heard President Chen and his supporters themselves say last week, Chen richly deserved President Bush’s unprecedented rebuke–even though Bush’s precise wording may have gone a bit too far. In short, the actions of Taiwan’s president forced Bush-administration officials to conclude, only a few days before Chinese Premier Wen’s arrival, that the U.S. president had little choice but to put distance between himself and the Taiwanese leader.
There’s little doubt that those Bush-administration officials responsible for China and Taiwan policy were driven by that special anger felt by those who have concluded that their friendship is being abused. That’s because, in early 2001, the Bush administration demonstrated that it was the most pro-Taiwan administration in decades. The president himself had removed much of the ambiguity surrounding the U.S. commitment to Taiwan by declaring that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of an unprovoked attack by China. The administration also approved sales of military equipment more advanced than anything Taiwan had previously obtained from us.
None of this changed after 9/11, but the United States soon had to reassess its tactical interests in East Asia. With our military forces committed primarily to fighting the war against terrorism, we had severely limited resources to fight a war in East Asia, either in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean Peninsula. This meant we had to reach a tactical accommodation with China, not only to ensure that it wouldn’t take any rash actions against Taiwan but also, increasingly, so that it would help broker a resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis so we could avoid military action if at all possible.
In short, we were vulnerable in East Asia. Fortunately, China had separately concluded by the end of 2001 that it should at least temporarily refrain from the sort of diplomatic coercion and military adventurism that had proven counterproductive in the 1990s. So Beijing was willing to reach a tactical accommodation with the United States.
The problem was Taiwan’s president. Chen Shui-bian’s mission, driven by his pro-independence political base on the island, was to constantly strengthen Taiwan’s autonomy and separate identity. If that angered China, so much the better, because that tended to polarize Taiwan’s electorate in a way that favored Chen’s reelection as president in March of 2004.
Starting last year, Bush-administration envoys and Douglas Paal, the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan, repeatedly pleaded with President Chen not to make waves and provoke China, underlining how vital it was to global U.S. strategic interests that stability prevails as much as possible in China-Taiwan relations.
In effect, Chen ignored Bush-administration pleas despite the steps Bush had taken earlier to strengthen Taiwan security. Chen took several steps in recent months to strengthen Taiwan’s independent identity that, most significantly, were guaranteed to anger China. Most recently, he proposed various versions of referendums that were seen, at minimum, as laying the groundwork for a referendum in which Taiwanese voters would one day endorse what would effectively be a declaration of independence.
Invoking principles of democracy and self-determination, it is easy for pro-Taiwan Americans to declare that democratic Taiwan should have the right to hold any referendum it wishes. In fact, many of us favor such moves. But right now, when the vital interests of its U.S. security guarantor are in jeopardy, is not the time.
Last week, Chen told visitors that his intelligence community had informed him that Beijing had decided to retaliate if any referendum was held, “whatever the cost” Beijing might have to pay. Nevertheless, Chen ploughed recklessly ahead with his referendum plans for domestic political purposes even though the United States had in recent weeks increased the urgency and frequency of its pleas to him to “cool it.”
During my brief visit to Taiwan, I had no opportunity to talk with Chen’s critics in the political opposition or at our de facto embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan. But listening to Chen himself and to some of his closest and most senior supporters only strengthened my view that Chen had committed a serious blunder by completely failing to understand that, despite its commitment to Taiwan, the Bush administration has an even higher commitment to protect the vital interests of the United States.
Some advisers, assured anonymity, expressed dismay over Chen’s error and offered little defense. Another blustered that Chen would be a hero in the eyes of Taiwanese voters for defying both Washington and Beijing but then acknowledged that Chen had been driven by political expediency. When Chen himself was asked for his explanation of why the most pro-Taiwan administration in recent U.S. history had ended up rebuking him, he dodged the question.
This is a sad time for those of us who have long looked to democratic Taiwan as a worthy and key part of the line of defense against China’s grandiose strategic ambitions. All the more so given the unseemly glee with which those U.S. China watchers, who consistently interpret Beijing’s actions sympathetically and portray Taiwan as a “troublemaker,” have pounced on this entire episode.
Nevertheless, the fundamentals of the de facto U.S.-Taiwan alliance are still intact even though the atmospherics have been soured to the point that the Bush administration may never again give President Chen the benefit of the doubt. Of course, if Chen persists in the coming Taiwan presidential campaign in jeopardizing vital U.S. interests for personal political gain, the fundamentals may not hold.
–Ross H. Munro is director of Asian studies at the Center for Security Studies in Washington, D.C. and is co-author of The Coming Conflict with China. He also teaches Chinese Grand Strategy at the Institute of World Politics. Munro visited Taiwan last week.