Remembering the Future

Remembering the Future

Mini Teaser: Taking seriously the admonition that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

by Author(s): Paul Wolfowitz

Is Taiwan an obstacle in U.S.-China relations or might it actually be an opportunity? For the last twenty-five years, U.S.-China differences over the issue have been successfully managed within a framework that has two essential premises: first, these differences must be addressed peacefully; second, they must be resolved by agreement of both parties, without a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan. This is called the "One China" policy, although the policy rests on a fundamental ambiguity concerning its very name: both sides have different views of what "One China" means and the United States has never advanced a view of its own (although President Clinton's adoption of the PRC's "Three No's" formulation during his visit to Shanghai in 1998 was interpreted as a substantial tilt toward the PRC's view). "One China" is supposed to be open to any interpretation the two sides can agree on.

Although today's circumstances are vastly different from those that prevailed when the Shanghai Communiqué was signed in 1972, the "One China" policy remains the best available framework for handling a difficult and sensitive issue. It is a framework that preserves freedom, democracy and prosperity in Taiwan, even as it denies the island the formal independence that many of its citizens desire. At the same time, by avoiding a direct affront to mainland China's sovereignty, it helps to avoid military conflict. Yet it will be more difficult to sustain this framework in the post-Cold War period, because of the enormous changes that have occurred on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The most important of these changes has been the establishment of genuine democracy in Taiwan. As recently as twenty years ago--another example of the rapidity of change--the island was still ruled by a brutal dictatorship. As welcome as it is, democratization complicates Taiwan's dealings with the mainland. The government in Taiwan must now answer to its people, the great majority of whom are native Taiwanese with little attachment to China. In the post-Cold War period, when flimsy mini-states such as Macedonia, the Kyrgyz Republic and East Timor have acquired independence, it is difficult to explain why a prosperous democracy of more than twenty million people is not so entitled.

From the PRC side, fear that proindependence sentiment might lead to a de jure assertion of independence by Taiwan has apparently strengthened the view in some quarters that the aim of reunification must be pressed more rapidly. It may also be that Jiang Zemin, like some other world leaders, has an eye toward his personal legacy and believes that, following on Hong Kong and Macau, he can somehow complete reunification in his lifetime. Nor can one discount the possible influence of the kind of strategic thinking found in Chinese military circles that Taiwan is the "crucial point in the first chain of islands", the key to realizing Admiral Liu Huaqing's assertion that "the Chinese navy should exert effective control of the seas within the first island chain", defined as comprising the Aleutians, the Kuriles, Japan (including the Ryukyus), Taiwan, the Philippines and most of Indonesia.

The stiffening of the PRC's approach to Taiwan also reflects the changed geopolitical situation since the end of the Cold War. China no longer needs the United States to balance a threatening neighbor and may instead revel in the prospect of its own growing power. Not that the United States ever used its leverage very well in any case. All the talk about China as a "card" to be played in U.S.-Soviet relations obviously increased China's own sense of its bargaining power with the United States. George Shultz--who described his own attitude as "a marked departure from the so-called China-card policy"--observed at the time he became secretary of state that,

When the geostrategic importance of China became the conceptual prism through which Sino-American relations were viewed, it was almost inevitable that American policymakers became overly solicitous of Chinese interests, concerns, and sensitivities.... On the basis of my own experience, I knew it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on a relationship for its own sake. A good relationship should emerge from the ability to solve substantive problems of interest to both countries.

"You owe us a debt", Deng Xiaoping said to Kissinger in one negotiating session in 1974, referring to the American use of the "China card" in its dealings with Moscow. Yet in this case, as in so many others, China managed to convince the United States--or to help Americans convince themselves--that we needed the relationship more than they did, when the situation was more nearly the reverse. It is a mystery why the United States needed China's help to reach two Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties that conceded large advantages to the Soviet Union--the second of which, indeed, was so deeply flawed that it never gained Senate ratification. It is much more obvious what China gained from the relationship during a period when the Soviet Union was threatening preventive war against China.

Most amazingly of all, it was we Americans who sought a hasty conclusion of the normalization negotiations in late 1978. If any side urgently needed normalization then it was China, which was preparing to invade Vietnam, a country that had just signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. But again, the United States acted as though the U.S.-China relationship was more important to us than to China. The result was easy to predict: an opportunity to achieve clarity on the crucial issue of arms sales to Taiwan was lost. Instead, the United States agreed to a moratorium on arms sales during the first year after normalization, mumbling an explanation that afterwards "the sale of selected, defensive arms... would continue in a way that did not endanger the prospects for peace in the region", while taking "note of China's continuing opposition to arms sales." This led directly to the crisis that culminated in the August 1982 communiqué on arms sales, an ambiguous resolution of the issue that rests on conflicting interpretations by the two sides.

Clarity is not always a virtue, and often ambiguity is a practical way to achieve an agreement with which both sides can live. The very term "One China" is ambiguous and the United States should leave any attempts at clarification to the parties themselves. By adopting the PRC's "Three No's" when he was in Shanghai in 1998, President Clinton foreclosed some possible avenues of agreement. More dangerously, he undermined the confidence of the Taiwanese in earlier U.S. assurances. Taiwanese anxiety was further heightened by the justifiable impression that the United States was surrendering to PRC pressure, as reflected in Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth's talk about an agreement on "interim measures", or China specialist Kenneth Lieberthal's proposal, shortly before joining the NSC, for a fifty-year interim agreement.

The more we seem to be pressing Taiwan to negotiate with China, the more fearful Taiwan becomes and the more we encourage the PRC to intensify its pressure. The United States needs to encourage maximum patience on this issue. For the status quo is quite satisfactory, and serious movement can only come if the PRC offers inducements to Taiwan, not pressure. Indeed, the record strongly suggests that the PRC and Taiwan--not unlike the Arab states and Israel--deal best with one another when they have to take responsibility for their own negotiating positions, with U.S. encouragement but without U.S. pressure. Under these conditions they negotiated joint membership of the Asian Development Bank in 1985 and of APEC in 1991.

The record further suggests that Taiwan-PRC relations improve when Taiwan--like so many others who have been dependent on the United States--feels secure in its reliance on America. Despite repeated warnings from various experts that strong U.S. demonstrations of support for Taiwan--the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Reagan's 1982 refusal to terminate arms sales, the Indigenous Defense Fighter project in 1985, the sale of F-16s in 1992--would disrupt the relationship between Beijing and Taipei, a period of convivial relations followed each of these events. When trouble has arisen, it has been the product of mixed signals, as with the administration's shifting positions on the question of a visa for Lee Teng-hui in 1995, which indicated to both sides that U.S. policy might very well bend under pressure.

While ambiguity on the definition of "One China" is desirable and on the subject of arms sales is probably necessary, there are two areas involving American intentions where ambiguity serves no purpose. The first concerns the U.S. attitude toward the use of force to resolve the Taiwan issue, the second our attitude toward Taiwanese independence.

A senior Clinton defense official reportedly told the Chinese that America's response to the use of force against Taiwan would "depend on the circumstances." At the same time, many in Taiwan believe that U.S. support remains unconditional. We have indulged misleading impressions on both sides. It would be a strategic as well as a moral mistake for the United States to let China have its way with Taiwan. No matter how much other countries in the region might criticize Taiwan for having contributed to the crisis, and no matter how much they might try to distance themselves from the United States, they would also view the U.S. response as a test of America's strategic will. At the same time, while making it clear to Taiwan that the United States will not abandon it or force it to negotiate under pressure, we should also convey that we expect reasonable behavior in return--which would include avoiding a unilateral declaration of independence.

Essay Types: Essay