Guns for Peace
The Obama administration is preparing a new arms package for Taiwan. Ironically, selling weapons to Taipei may be the best way for Washington to get out from the middle of one of the world's potentially most volatile relationships, between China and Taiwan.
The Taiwan Strait is at peace and relations between China and Taiwan are improving. Yet the former continues to point more than 1,300 missiles across the Taiwan Strait. The threat of military force remains as an uneasy backdrop to expanding economic and tourist contacts between the People's Republic of China and Republic of China.
The United States finds itself positioned uneasily between the two Chinas. Formally committed to the principle of one China as a matter of policy and providing weapons to Taiwan for its defense as a matter of law, Washington cannot easily square the circle. As the PRC grows in economic strength and international influence, pressure will grow on America's relationship with Taipei.
The PRC and ROC became implacable enemies after Mao Zedong's communists ousted the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to the island of Taiwan, regained from Japan only at the end of World War II. For much of the Cold War the U.S. military acted as the final guarantor of Chiang's rump state. Jimmy Carter finished the geopolitical move initiated by Richard Nixon, ending Washington's recognition of the ROC as ruling all China; Congress then approved the Taiwan Relations Act, preserving an informal relationship with Taiwan.
Today the ROC is recognized by 23 small countries, concentrated in Latin America. There no longer is any pretense that Taiwan represents the mainland. In fact, most Taiwanese would choose an independent Taiwan given their druthers. But their druthers are constrained by Beijing, which has not dropped its claim over the island. A formal declaration of independence might cause the PRC to loose some of those missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Taipei's precarious situation was demonstrated by the transformation of Bush administration policy. President George W. Bush began his term promising that the U.S. would come to Taiwan's aid in the event of an attack by China. At the end of his term President Bush was attending the Olympics in Beijing, holding back arms from Taiwan, and limiting transit by Taiwan's president across American territory-as had Bill Clinton.
U.S. policy in part reflected personal animus from President Bush, who famously based policy decisions on personal assessments, toward Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian. And Washington still insisted that cross-strait differences be decided peacefully. Nevertheless, the PRC's gravitational pull obviously was hard to resist, even by the hawkish Bush administration.
The election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan's president in March 2008 was greeted with relief in Beijing and Washington. Ma, though in persistent political difficulties at home, most recently over U.S. beef imports, has downplayed Taiwan's quest for a separate international identity and promoted ties with China. Most notable was Taipei's support for initiating direct flights with China, permitting direct Chinese investment in Taiwan, and allowing an influx of Chinese tourists. Despite concerns over lost jobs and increased Chinese influence, the Ma government is pushing for further economic integration through the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement. Yet the PRC's retreat from confrontation reflects a change in tactics, not objectives. While we all should hope that the new China-Taiwan relationship presages a peaceful settlement of their dispute over the island's status, Taiwan's newly restrained attitude has only delayed rather than eliminated the threat of conflict with China.
The atmospherics are good, but the underlying substantive issues remain unchanged. The PRC sees only one outcome, whether the result of negotiation or ultimatum: Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. As Beijing's ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong, explained a couple of years ago, everything could be discussed "as long as they agree to the one-China principle."
In contrast, President Ma, no less than his predecessor, opposes submitting Taiwan to rule, however loose and genteel, by the PRC. The Taiwanese public feels the same way. Thousands of demonstrators typically greet visiting envoys from Beijing. A recent Rand Corporation report observed: "the changes in the political, social, and cultural identity of the island's population are genuine, significant, and enduring, and these realities strongly suggest that even the most flexible Taipei government will reach its limits of possible accommodation well short of Beijing's desired position." At some point China's patience is likely to fade. What happens if Ma's more cooperative policy has only put off the day of reckoning, delaying rather than forestalling a Chinese ultimatum?
Continuing arms sales may be the best hope of turning delayed into forestalled.
During the Cold War no one doubted Washington's will and ability to prevent the PRC from attempting to conquer or intimidate Taiwan. Neither is certain any longer.
Threatening war with xenophobic, impoverished Maoist China in the midst of the Cold War was one thing. Contemplating war with increasingly capitalist and modern China, economically dominant in East Asia, tied by trade to most industrialized states, and deploying increasing economic and diplomatic resources throughout the Third World, is a very different matter. Pull that trigger and the twenty-first century looks a lot uglier, even if the United States handily wins round one.