The Stability of Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait

September 1, 2001 Topic: DefenseMilitary StrategySecurity Regions: Asia Tags: Cold WarIslamismWar In Afghanistan

The Stability of Deterrence in the Taiwan Strait

Mini Teaser: The Bush Administration should take to heart the lesson learned by its predecessors: leave well enough alone in the Taiwan Strait.

by Author(s): Robert S. Ross

The case can and has been made that the foreign policy of the Bush
Administration differs little from that of its predecessor. Only the
rhetoric has changed, it has been claimed, and even some of that is
falling back into old patterns--with regard to North Korea, the
Arab-Israeli conflict, and what to do about Ba'athi Iraq. Remaining
differences of rhetoric, it is said, mask essential continuity. The
Bush Administration carries a more unilateralist tone over a range of
issues--the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court,
proposals to verify the 1972 Biological Weapons Treaty and control
the flow of small arms--but it is not clear that the Clinton
Administration was really more eager to press ahead on such matters,
or that a Gore Administration would have been. Even on missile
defense and the ABM treaty, the differences between Clinton and Bush
may end up being quite minor when all is said and done.

One could argue the general case for the persistence of policy either
way, but in one specific area there is a clear difference, and not
just a rhetorical one. It concerns policy toward China.

When President Bush took office, he telephoned every major world
leader but Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The Bush Administration
then reportedly set about revising the SIOP (Strategic Integrated
Operating Plan) to target more U.S. nuclear missiles against China.
It has given serious consideration to prioritizing preparation for
conventional war in East Asia against China and has promoted enhanced
strategic cooperation with India and Japan. It has encouraged Japan
to loosen its restraints on a more active regional military presence
and it has proposed development with U.S. allies South Korea, Japan
and Australia of a "regional" dialogue. It has also stressed
cooperation with Russia on missile defense seemingly at the expense
of China. It has defined the "no foreign-made products" stricture for
the U.S. military to mean essentially no Chinese-made products and
curtailed Pentagon contacts with the Chinese military. It has
reversed a twenty-year U.S. policy by agreeing to sell submarines to
Taiwan. It has also allowed high-profile visits to the United States
by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and the Dalai Lama. Withal, the
administration has not appointed a specialist on China to any senior
position in the government.

Such a confrontational posture toward China cannot be explained as a
response to the downing of a U.S. ep-3 surveillance plane and the
detention of its crew for eleven days. The trend predates the
incident and, despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's constructive
visit to Beijing in July, has continued since. Rather, the
explanation seems to lie in the administration's sympathy for Taiwan,
its dour assessment of Chinese intentions and the prospect, in its
view, of heightened instability in the Taiwan Strait. There is more
than just talk going on: the administration is pursuing broad
coordination with Taiwan's military to enable cooperation in a
possible war with China, that coordination being an objective of many
Republican defense and foreign policy specialists and members of
Congress since 1996.

This is a well-intended but misguided effort. Such cooperation will
not make Taiwan more secure, the United States more effective
militarily or the deterrence of war more assured. Should the Bush
Administration nevertheless continue this policy, it will eventually
elicit mainland opposition because it threatens to reverse the
essence of the post-1979 U.S.-China strategic understanding on
Taiwan. It is worth emphasizing the core of that understanding from
the Chinese point of view, to which many American analysts have
somehow become oblivious.

From the days of the Korean War until 1979, Taiwan loomed in
Beijing's eyes as a kind of American "Cuba." In other words, Beijing
believed that the U.S. presence on Taiwan enabled the United States
to threaten China's borders directly, just as the United States
believed that the Soviet presence in Cuba threatened U.S. security
from the early 1960s to the end of the Cold War. Indeed, in 1954
Washington and Taipei signed the U.S.-Republic of China Mutual
Defense Treaty, which led to the U.S. deployment of advanced aircraft
and nuclear-capable missiles on the island. But in 1979, when
Washington normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing, it agreed to
terminate the 1954 treaty with Taiwan and to withdraw its military
presence from the island, thus satisfying China's demand that the
United States cease using Taiwan to threaten Chinese security.

If Chinese leaders believe, in their bedrock strategic realism, that
the United States is out to reverse the 1979 understanding, they have
a full menu of riposte at their disposal. They can engage in
nerve-wracking saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait in order to
heighten regional tension and political and economic instability on
Taiwan. They can reduce cooperation on the Korean peninsula and renew
missile proliferation to Pakistan and the Middle East. They can also
impose costly sanctions against major U.S. export industries
dependent on the Chinese market, such as Boeing.

In the face of such potential trouble, the Bush Administration seems
to believe that if it firmly wields U.S. power, it can command
Chinese accommodation to U.S. policy initiatives. But this repeats
the old mistakes of several new entrants to the White House. The
Carter, Reagan and Clinton Administrations (but not the first Bush
Administration) each made the same error and encountered a level of
Chinese resistance that required them to move back to the policy of
their predecessors. Each discovered, too, that their predecessor's
policy was compatible with U.S. interests in both defending Taiwan
and cooperating with China.

The Bush Administration should maintain essential policy continuity
with its predecessors simply because there is no good reason for any
other course. There is, in effect, a firm triangle of military
deterrence and political dissuasion at work: China is deterred from
the use of force against Taiwan so long as American power and
interests are engaged there and Taiwan does not declare independence;
Taiwan is deterred from declaring independence due to credible
Chinese threats to use limited but politically significant force in
the face of any such declaration; and the United States is--or ought
to be--dissuaded from tampering with this situation because it
enables Washington to defend Taiwan, deal with China as necessary and
prudent on a range of issues, and minimize the possibility of war
through miscalculation. Moreover, the effective deterrence and mutual
interests in stability that are characteristic of this triangle are
conditions bound to last well into the 21st century.

Why China Wants Peace with Taiwan

China has three sets of interests in Taiwan--concerning security,
nationalism and domestic politics--each of which provides a powerful
incentive for Chinese leaders to exercise influence over the Taiwan
issue. Together, these interests ensure that the mainland would be
prepared to use force to reverse seriously unwelcome trends in
Taiwan's international role.

China's security interest in the Taiwan issue reflects the concern of
all states for secure borders. Located eighty miles from the Chinese
coast, Taiwan's enduring strategic importance to China is obvious.
Should any great power establish a strategic presence on Taiwan, it
could use the island to challenge Chinese coastal security. This is
not just a theoretical matter as far as the Chinese leadership is
concerned. Japan occupied Taiwan (then called Formosa in the
English-speaking world) from 1895 until 1945. The United States was
ensconced militarily on Taiwan from at least 1954 until the
U.S.-China agreement to normalize diplomatic relations in January

Since 1979 the United States has continued to sell advanced weaponry
to Taiwan, but this commercial relationship has not enabled the U.S.
military to use the island to challenge directly Chinese security.
China opposes these sales, but its key strategic interest--excluding
a great power strategic presence on Taiwan--is now satisfied by the
status quo, thus minimizing its strategic interest in war.

Chinese nationalism demands that both the international community and
Taiwan acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China, and therefore that
it not declare sovereign status in international politics. While this
demand is longstanding, it has taken on added energy in recent years
as the domestic political significance of Chinese nationalism has
grown. Now that the Chinese Communist Party leadership no longer
enjoys ideological legitimacy, is infamous for corruption, represses
dissent, and cannot ensure economic stability for much of its
population, it depends on its nationalist credentials for political
ballast. Taiwan's declaration of independence would challenge party
legitimacy, especially since it would be interpreted as U.S.
"imperialist" intervention in Chinese domestic affairs.

The combination of China's strategic, nationalist and political
imperatives creates the latent instability associated with the Taiwan
issue. Should Taiwan declare independence, the mainland would most
likely use force and possibly go to war to compel Taiwan to reverse
its position. This seemed increasingly likely during the 1990s, when
Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's first democratically elected leader, moved
Taiwan toward a declaration of independence. His July 1999
announcement of Taiwan's "special state-to-state" relationship with
the mainland came close to crossing the line of a declaration of
sovereignty, but it did not. Since then, despite the election in
March 2000 of the pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan
has retreated from Lee's provocative stance. In his May 20, 2000
inauguration speech, Chen declared that Taiwan would not declare
independence, would not change Taiwan's constitution to incorporate
the "state-to-state" formulation, would not change the name of
Taiwan, and would not hold a popular referendum on Taiwan's
international status. He has not reversed this policy, so that
mainland interest in continued recognition by Taiwan that it is part
of China is met.

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