Politics & Policy

Tense Straits

Washington signals timidity toward Chinese bellicosity.

As world attention has focused in the past weeks on continuing violence in Iraq and disaster relief in southeast Asia, decisions made in Beijing and Washington have quietly pushed both countries closer toward a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. Avoiding military conflict over Taiwan has always required a strong deterrent posture from Washington so the People’s Republic understands the costs of any precipitous action. Instead, while Beijing has been laying a pseudo-legal justification for war against Taipei, Washington has been signaling timidity.

On December 17, Beijing announced that it would “pass” an “anti-secession” law squarely aimed at Taiwan in a transparent move to lay the predicate for military attack. Of course, the Chinese government does not “pass” anything–it dictates. The puppet parliament obligingly scheduled the proposed law for final action in its March session.

The “anti-secession law” is the latest move in Beijing’s dangerous new game: Realizing that democratic Taiwan will never voluntarily decide to become part of a dictatorial China, Beijing is moving to “reunify the motherland” with force. China’s massive military buildup–including some 600 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan–is now augmented with a “law” designed to give a veneer of legitimacy to Beijing’s martial intent.

What was needed from Washington was a firm response to this bellicosity. A statement of opposition to the law and a reaffirmation of our commitment to Taiwan’s defense would have strengthened deterrence and affected calculations in Beijing.

Unfortunately, no such statement was forthcoming. The State Department spokesman meekly stated that the Bush administration did not have a response to the law because it had not “had a chance to study it.” Yet, official Chinese statements describing the law lead to only one conclusion: Beijing is violating the central tenet of the Bush administration’s cross-Strait policy by “unilaterally changing the status quo.” The State Department is never as studious when it comes to democratic Taiwan’s actions alleged to challenge the status quo.

More damaging, outgoing Deputy Secretary State Richard Armitage publicly weakened the decades-long U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Appearing on PBS’s Charlie Rose Show, Armitage was asked whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China attacked. He demurred that it is “not quite appropriate” for him to answer that question–notwithstanding President Bush’s answer to the same question in 2001 that the U.S. would “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan.

The Taiwan Relations Act, Secretary Armitage continued, “requires us to keep sufficient force in the Pacific to be able to deter attack; we are not required to defend.” But denying an intent to defend deals a fatal blow to any attempt at deterrence. Beijing was surely emboldened to hear a senior U.S. official claim President Bush’s commitment to defend Taiwan is no more than a poker player’s bluff.

Armitage went on to do even more damage: “We all believe that there is one China and Taiwan is part of China,” he said. This statement likewise undercuts years of U.S. diplomacy. The United States does not take a position on Taiwan’s final status–independence, unification with the Mainland, or some other arrangement to which people on both sides of the Strait provide their assent. In other words, it is most definitely not the position of the U.S. that Taiwan is part of China.

Yet, for many seeking accommodation with Beijing’s despots, Armitage’s comments on China-Taiwan policy have a certain perverse logic. If Taiwan is indeed part of China, they argue, why should the U.S. be committed to defending it? In fact, why should we be selling Taiwan advanced weaponry at all if China is only going to get its hands on that weaponry eventually?

The problem with that logic is that it misstates the TRA and U.S. policy. The TRA states that it is the policy of the United States “to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means…a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” Quite a contrast to Beijing’s recently released defense white paper that pledges to “thoroughly crush at any cost” moves it perceives to be “a major incident of ‘Taiwan independence.’”

The Bush administration wants nothing more than for cross-Strait tensions to disappear so that it can focus on other pressing foreign-policy matters. Unfortunately, a weak response to Beijing’s provocations will only encourage more provocations.

Moreover, a rudimentary understanding of Taiwan’s politics–vibrant democratic politics–should by now lead Washington to the conclusion that every time the U.S. casts doubt on its long-standing defense commitment to Taiwan or misstates U.S. policy on Taiwan’s status, President Chen must respond. Since a majority of Taiwanese do not believe that Taiwan is part of China, President Chen will, in one way or another, say so. Not exactly the way to avoid a crisis, is it?

In his historic inauguration speech last week President Bush made clear that the expansion of democracy and freedom are the central tenets of his foreign policy. On Taiwan policy, the administration should put those inspirational words into action by protecting a democracy from the aggressive designs of a dictatorship.

Dan Blumenthal, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was senior director for China and Taiwan in the office of the secretary of Defense. Randy Scheunemann is a director of the Project for a New American Century.

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