President Bush made a startling change in Washington's Taiwan policy during a visit by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in December. With Wen at his side, Bush stated that the United States opposed "any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo." Making it clear that his warning was directed primarily against Taipei rather than Beijing, he added that "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally, to change the status quo, which we oppose."
If that were not enough, the president stood mute when Wen characterized U.S. policy as one of "opposition to Taiwan independence," and expressed China's appreciation for that stance. Whether Bush intended it or not, that characterization suggested that Washington's policy was now closer to Beijing's position than it was even during the last years of the Clinton Administration. The furthest Clinton had been willing to go was to state that the United States "does not support" Taiwanese independence. The difference between "does not support" and "oppose" may be subtle, but it is quite important. Beijing had unsuccessfully pressed a succession of U.S. administrations for an expression of explicit opposition to an independent Taiwan; now, China seems to have achieved that goal.
What made Bush's actions especially surprising is that they were such a sharp reversal from the course he had adopted during the initial months of his presidency. In a television interview on April 25, 2001, Bush appeared to discard all nuances and caveats about protecting Taiwan. When asked by ABC News reporter Charles Gibson if the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan, the president replied, "Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that." Would the United States respond "with the full force of the American military?" Gibson pressed. "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," Bush replied. A few weeks after that statement, Bush approved the largest arms sales package to Taiwan since his father's controversial sale of F-16 fighters in 1992.
But it wasn't just the firmness of the commitment to defend Taiwan that marked the administration's policy. During the Clinton years, the U.S. government was so committed to a "one China" policy that it barely tolerated "stopovers" in the United States by Taiwanese officials on their way to destinations elsewhere in the world. When Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, made such a stopover in 2000, the State Department strongly discouraged him from making any public appearances or even meeting privately with members of Congress. He was kept virtually incommunicado in his hotel. The attitude of the Bush Administration was dramatically different. Subsequent visits by Chen and other officials included public appearances and meetings with Washington's apparent blessing -even as Beijing seethed. At one point in 2002, Taiwan's defense minister met "informally" with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz during a security conference put on by a think tank in Florida. That was the highest-level meeting between U.S. and Taiwanese officials in more than two decades.
In short, the Bush Administration gave every indication of sympathy for Taiwan's quest for international recognition of its de facto independence. What then accounted for the policy reversal in late 2003?
The most obvious answer is that Chen's government has been pushing the envelope on the issue of independence to the point that Beijing has responded with rather blunt warnings that such provocations could lead to war. The most controversial action was a decision by Chen's Administration to push for a new statute that would allow the holding of referenda on various issues. The first referendum, scheduled for March 20, originally proposed to condemn China's growing deployment of missiles across the Taiwan strait and ask that this threat to Taiwan's security be removed. Under pressure from Washington, Chen softened the wording somewhat. The new version will ask voters whether Taiwan should purchase more advanced anti-missile systems if China does not remove the offending missiles.
To the authorities in Beijing, even the watered-down version of the referendum is unacceptable, since the Chinese government regards Taiwan as nothing more than a renegade province. Beijing also fears that the March referendum is just the wedge. Chinese leaders suspect that sooner or later, there will be a referendum on changing Taiwan's official name from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan or perhaps even a referendum on declaring independence.
China's warnings that such provocations could lead to a war in the Taiwan strait are taken seriously in Washington, and they have led U.S. officials to wish that Chen's government would curb its exuberance. But that is only one factor. The Bush Administration believes that the United States needs China's help on an array of important issues. The desire for Beijing's assistance against Islamic radical groups is one significant area. But the need for China's cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue is probably the most important factor. U.S. leaders believe that China may be the only power that can induce Kim Jong Il's erratic regime to give up its dangerous and provocative quest for nuclear weapons. Washington knows that Beijing's help will not come for free, and that a change in U.S. policy on Taiwan appears to be the price that Chinese officials are demanding. The Bush Administration apparently is ready to pay that price.
Unfortunately, the president has gone from one extreme to the other regarding our policy on the Taiwan issue. His April 2001 unconditional pledge to defend Taiwan was irresponsible. No reasonable American would be happy about the possibility of a democratic Taiwan being forcibly absorbed by an authoritarian China, but preserving Taiwan's de facto independence is not worth risking war with a nuclear-armed power. America should never incur that level of risk except in the defense of its own vital security interests.
And the risk of war is not far-fetched. The status of Taiwan is a hot button issue for most mainland Chinese. Even those Chinese who are not especially fond of the communist regime in Beijing tend to believe that the island is rightfully part of China. Japan stole it from their country in 1895, the United States prevented reunification following the defeat of Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist forces in 1949, and they want the territory back.
Conversely, separatist sentiments are growing in Taiwan-especially among younger Taiwanese. To them, China is an alien country. A vibrant society has grown up on Taiwan, and many Taiwanese point out that their island has been ruled from Beijing only 4 years out of the last 108-and the government in question was not communist. Taiwan has developed separately from the mainland, and it is understandable if many Taiwanese want that reality ratified through an independent state that enjoys full international recognition.
In short, the ingredients exist for a nasty confrontation between Beijing and Taipei at some point. The United States needs to be careful lest it get caught in the middle of such a conflict.
Although it is imprudent for the United States to pledge to defend Taiwan, it is equally inappropriate for Washington to tell Taiwan what its policies ought to be. It is especially unsavory for the United States to criticize another democratic polity for choosing to hold a referendum on a particular issue-however sensitive that issue might be. Chen Shui-bian's government rightly rebuffed such interference and has declared its intention to go ahead with the March 20 referendum.
Instead of either risking going to war to defend Taiwan or kowtowing to Beijing regarding Taiwan's political status, the Bush Administration should adopt an entirely different approach. The president should state that the United States takes no position on the question of Taiwan's independence. It is not our place to support or oppose that outcome. Washington should be willing to continue selling arms to Taiwan, if the Taiwanese are willing and able to pay for them. The Taiwanese ought to be told that the question of independence is up to them to decide, but that if they opt for independence, they must be prepared to bear all of the consequences on their own. Both Taipei and Beijing need to be informed that the United States will not be a party to any war that might break out in the Taiwan strait.
Such an approach would respect Taiwan's dignity as a democratic society while limiting America's risk. Bush's strategy does exactly the opposite. It pressures Taiwan not to exercise its prerogatives as a vibrant democracy, while it keeps America's risk at a dangerously high level if a conflict should erupt. Bush has had several chances to get America's Taiwan policy right. He still has not succeeded.
Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books including Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic