Part 9: Potential tragedy of miscalculation

Henry C.K. Liu

Part 1: Two nations, worlds apart
Part 2: Cold War links Korea, Taiwan

Part 3: Korea: Wrong war, wrong place, wrong enemy
Part 4: 38th Parallel leads straight to Taiwan
Part 5:
History of the Taiwan time bomb
Part 6:
Forget reunification - nothing to reunite
Part 7:
The referendum question
Part 8: Avoiding another no-win war

This article appeared in AToL on February 11, 2004

US calculations on military intervention over Taiwan rest on strategic considerations. The MacArthur doctrine of the military importance of Taiwan to US interests in Asia had been framed in a Cold War geopolitical context of a hostile China - that was a given. In the new post-Cold War geopolitical context, the US military advantage from hanging on to Taiwan is more than neutralized by the creation of a resultant hostile China out of a friendly one, foreclosing the prospect of a strategic partnership for a stable Asia. Cordial US-China relations would spell more security to the United States than US control of Taiwan could ever offer.

Thus the United States has no intrinsic strategic interest in Taiwan, except diplomatic credibility that may affect US strategic defense commitments to Japan and South Korea. US policy on Taiwan, disguised as defense for democracy and capitalism, is really held hostage to the traditional Japanese view of the importance of Taiwan for Japanese security. Taiwan is the only pro-Japanese territory in Asia. and it will be its first objective in future expansion into Southeast Asia. US policy planners argue that if the United States should define Taiwan in terms of Japanese security interests, as theater missile defense (TMD) implies, and subsequently fail to defend that very strategic interest, Japanese rearmament may well result. Yet Japanese interest in Taiwan is framed in threats from non-Asian sources, not from China, whose proximity to Japan is further north.

De facto US occupation of Taiwan does not serve Japanese long-range national interest. Japan is much more interested in resolving the North Korea nuclear issue with the cooperation of China and would not complicate the problem with Japanese opposition to Chinese control of Taiwan.

On the other hand, if Taiwan moves toward independence, even if without Japanese support, it will spark Japanese ambitions toward it over time, not to mention immediate Chinese action. Thus the optimum solution for the United States may well be an early accommodation with China, before the growing divergence of US-Japan interests escalates, so that the return of Taiwan to China may be viewed by Japan as a neutral development in terms of Japanese security and national interests.

US intervention in any armed conflict over Taiwan will involve US bases in Japan. That will force Japan to choose between a hostile relationship with China and the existing US-Japan alliance and its strategic interests in Taiwan. How Japan will choose is by no means clear or predictable, and the US might be taken aback, just as Washington was shocked by Ankara's refusal to allow the United States use of its bases in Turkey in support of the Iraq war. Japan has been trying to shift gradually from its now unhappy economic dependence on the US, with which contentious trade disputes have been intensifying and satisfactory resolutions appearing more remote over time, by developing alternative markets and economic relations in Asia, particularly China, and in Europe.

Japan would be drawn into Taiwan conflict

Japan cannot escape concluding that the Asian financial crises of 1997 were caused - if not engineered - by US-led finance globalization and dollar hegemony and that Japan has been a collateral victim while the US has been a happy beneficiary.

The immediate threat to Japan during the Cold War was the Soviet Union, the dissolution of which changed the basis of the US-Japan defense alliance. Japanese security issues with North Korea and China may in fact be simpler with a reduced US presence, by deflecting anti-US sentiment from Japan. Both the left and the right in Japanese politics oppose the US-Japan defense alliance. The left does not wish to see Japan dragged into a war in Asia merely to defend US interests, while the right opposes the defense treaty as an insulting obstacle to Japan's sovereign right to rearm. Japan is now using US pressure to send Japanese troops to Iraq as an opening for Japanese military independence. Just as the nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has changed after the Cold War, the US-Japan defense alliance faces a very uncertain future.

Taiwan may well be the focus for Japan to address its future security options. Thus it is natural for China to consider it imperative to reach an understanding with Japan independent of US positions over Taiwan, as China has begun to do with Europe.

The United States, Japan and China have a common interest to manage the Taiwan issue and the North Korea nuclear issue to prevent a destructive unraveling of the Asian-Pacific strategic balance, resulting in an unending confrontation between the US and China, similar to the situation with Cuba, Iran, Iraq or worse, and/or a breakdown in the US-Japan alliance, and/or a re-emergence of hostile regional rivalry between Japan and China. The US is facing enormously difficult problems in the Middle East, in the Persian Gulf, and increasingly with a problematic Russia, a challenging European community and a populist Latin America. With such a global range of pressing problems, with the support of traditional allies such as France, Germany and Japan becoming more conditional on the US curbing its unilateralism, and an open-ended global "war of terrorism", the US does not need China as an added enemy.

The US insistence on molding China in its own image as a condition for a constructive relationship is foolhardy. Yet US leadership has been timid in shepherding public opinion away from demonizing China. Deep-rooted US antagonism toward China has forced all US administrations since 1949 to bypass normal diplomatic and institutional channels in their dealings with China, at times with an energetic White House that even cut out the State and Defense departments, let alone Congress and the press.

This style of foreign policy unfortunately leaves US policy on China devoid of broad-based support or even understanding. Thus Washington's China policy has been allowed to fall victim to the peculiar dynamics of domestic politics and the whims of energetic policy wonks, the latest being the neo-conservatives. Many US analysts rightly criticize China for being inept in its handling of the US Congress, popular opinion, and US religious groups. Yet the responsibility for nurturing this faulty Chinese perspective traces back in no small way to an arrogant White House that saw foreign policy as its imperial prerogative. China has become a political football in US presidential elections every four years, with the sitting administration, Republican or Democrat, targeted by the opposition for being soft on China diplomatically and economically.

Promoting China's dismemberment weakens the region

US attempts to defuse rising Chinese national capabilities through its clandestine support for separatist forces will not succeed, because China will resist such development at all costs. A policy of fragmentation or dismemberment of China, by encouraging its breakup into independent regions and provinces, is a contradiction in logic. A weak China that can be dismembered is a threat to everyone, so a policy of fragmentation to reduce a so-called China threat is not only unnecessary, it will in fact bring about chaos that will threaten regional or even global stability. In fact, a US policy to fragment China would be a guarantee to ignite precisely the kind of Chinese super-nationalism that its enemies are interested in avoiding. The "Open Door" policy of US secretary of state John Hay worked out that logic a century ago.

New China's national purpose is one of redressing a century of national victimization under Western imperialism and its residual reincarnation in neo-liberal globalization. Until the current order of residual imperialist exploitation is redressed, no Chinese government can accept the status quo and expect to stay in power for long. China's national interests lie in a rightful fulfillment of Chinese "manifest destiny" to balance its rich traditional culture with modern scientific technology. It involves a renaissance of Chinese culture and societal values in the socialist vision of Da Tong (great commonality). It involves the justifiable recovery of territories lost under the age of Western imperialism.

China, by political logic and by virtue of its size and long history, is entitled to major-power status and deserves the acknowledgment of that status by all. It seeks to expand its rightful influence in international institutions and forums that make decisions economically and strategically for the region and the world. China's destiny is being fueled by a revival of popular nationalism and renewed confidence in its cultural heritage. Any government that does not respond to these national aims cannot govern China for long. Any foreign government that does not acknowledge this Chinese destiny cannot hope for good relations with China.

A new US policy of containment of China will be counterproductive and futile. Such a policy will unnecessarily create a hostile China and force it again into the role of a garrison state. Asian governments would no longer support such a US policy in the post-Cold War world. Yet former US president Bill Clinton's policy of "constructive engagement" was based on a dubious objective: changing China through "peaceful evolution". That policy required the militarization of the peace, by using trade as an ideological weapon of moral imperialism. It purports to change China in America's image by engaging it with trade. In the end, neither trade nor peace was served by this policy. President George W Bush has retreated from his strategic-competitor posture on China since the US launched the "war on terrorism".

Now the Democrats are demonizing Chinese monetary and economic policy as the cause of joblessness in the United States, rather than structural defects in US-engineered globalization. Just as US domestic politics caused the blunders of the Korean War and the hostile containment of China for half a century afterward, US domestic politics will set the course of US-China relations for the coming century - and the fate of Asia and the world.

Recovering Taiwan the centerpiece of China's security

Security threats faced by China in a multipolar world have not diminished. The main threat has shifted now to the form of ethnic separatism, mainly orchestrated by US interests in the name of freedom, human rights and democracy, at least up to the launching of the current "war on terrorism". This is why the recovery of Taiwan is a sine qua non of Chinese national security. Increasingly, China recognizes economic development as a key tool in combating ethnic separatism, not political suppression. Historically, a prosperous China attracted fringe ethnic groups seeking to join the center for obvious benefits, and a poor center feeds centrifugal forces toward separatism. Much of Chinese history had been devoted to efforts to keep out envious neighboring ethnic groups.

Current policies in both Washington and Beijing are locked on a collision track. An excessively hostile and belligerent approach to China in general and the Taiwan issue in particular will reinforce the prospect of China concluding that war with the United States is unavoidable. Recent official government and military contacts between the US and Taiwan are viewed by China as direct violations of the three communiques. Bush's reference to Taiwan as the Republic of China in a televised press conference soon after his inauguration was undeniably provocative. On the other hand, excessive appeasement on the part of the current Chinese leadership toward US belligerence will only reinforce former US secretary of state George Shultz's notion of a helpless China without options, causing the US to push its anti-China policies even harder. The danger of miscalculation in both capitals is very real. No Chinese government can survive the independence of Taiwan, nor can peace in Asia or even the world.

Just as Washington ignored repeated messages from China about its intention to enter the Korean War in 1950 to the detriment of all, the Taiwan issue is shaping up to be a potential tragedy of miscalculation. The ideal solution is a peaceful solution. But there is no doubt that if military conflict is necessary, China will use it, regardless of cost. Recent US policy on Taiwan appears to be based on a momentous miscalculation of this fact. It is a miscalculation that would lead to a military conflict with no winners. China can learn lessons from the way president John F Kennedy handled the Cuban missile crisis in order to preempt a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.

The way to prevent US miscalculation over Taiwan is through credible Chinese brinkmanship. The new Chinese diplomatic offensive against US hegemony by strengthening bilateral ties with the European Union, Japan, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Venezuela, India and African nations should be a warning to US policymakers on the geopolitical irony of their anti-China policies.

Allowing the historical conditions of Taiwan to hamper a constructive relationship between China and the United States is to lose the future in pursuit of the past. For China to pursue a course of domestic economic development and adopt a policy of promoting peace and stability, the Taiwan issue has to be settled first. Further delay will only raise the final cost and make peaceful resolution more difficult.

The Taiwan and the Korea situations are two dangerous military flashpoints in the complex and challenging foreign and defense policy issues facing the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. The North Korea nuclear issue cannot be solved without Chinese cooperation. While it is obvious that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is in the interest of all, the Taiwan problem had its origin in US intervention in the Korean civil war and the Korean nuclear issue, and like that other conflict, the Taiwan issue is a product of the unfinished Korean civil war.

US-Taiwan defense ties undermine China ties

There is no more sensitive issue in US-China relations than the Taiwan issue. Moreover, the US-Taiwan defense relationship is the most controversial aspect of that relationship. The Bush administration's policy toward Taiwan, at least in the first term, is markedly different from the Clinton administration's position, at least in its second term. On defense issues, President Bush's policy has clearly moved from one of "strategic ambiguity" to one of greater "strategic clarity".

Even before the last US presidential election, the Republican Party platform, which was ratified by the GOP (Grand Old Party) in Philadelphia in August 2000, stated: "Our policy is based on the principle that there must be no use of force by China against Taiwan. We deny the right of Beijing to impose its rule on the free Taiwanese people. All issues regarding Taiwan's future must be resolved peacefully and must be agreeable to the people of Taiwan. If China violates these principles and attacks Taiwan, then the United States will respond appropriately in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. America will help Taiwan defend itself."

The platform added in a separate section of the document: "Taiwan deserves America's strong support, including the timely sale of defensive arms to enhance Taiwan's security." Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his confirmation testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2001, affirmed: "The United States will maintain the capacity to resist any form of coercion that jeopardizes the security of the social or economic system of the people of Taiwan."

Early in his tenure, President Bush clarified the US commitment to defend Taiwan. On ABC's Good Morning America television show on April 25, 2001, the president stated that if the People's Republic of China (PRC) attacked Taiwan, the US had an obligation to defend the Taiwanese. He declared that the United States would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself". Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told the Washington Post in an interview last November 21, on the eve of his first visit to the US: "The Chinese people will pay any price to safeguard the unity of the motherland."

"Whatever it took" was matched by "pay any price". In a February 2002 speech to a US-Taiwan Business Council meeting in St Petersburg, Florida, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz noted, "As President Bush and others have said, the United States is committed to doing whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself. Our position is clear. We don't support Taiwan independence, but we oppose the use of force." At the same conference, Wolfowitz and James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. each met with Taiwanese Defense Minister Tang Yao-ming.

This was the first visit of a Taiwanese defense minister to the United States since the breaking of official relations with Taiwan in 1979. This meeting established a new precedence in the defense relationship, and publicly demonstrated a strong US interest in issues related to Taiwan's security. Other high-level defense visits have also taken place since that time. On Taiwan defense issues, the Bush administration clearly showed much less equivocation in policy than in the past.

Consistent with long-standing US policy, while the Bush administration supports a "one China" policy as stipulated in the three Sino-US joint communiques and acknowledges that Beijing views Taiwan as a part of China, it does not itself accept that view. Thus officially, the "one China" policy supported by the US is not identical to China's "one China" policy. Adherence to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA, Public Law 96-8) is fundamental to Bush administration policy. The TRA mandates arms sales that allow Taiwan to "maintain a sufficient self-defense capability".

More specifically, in terms of the US-Taiwan defense relationship, the administration believes this means maintaining a military balance across the Taiwan Strait through the provision of arms, military services and training to Taipei. The TRA also states that any attempt by the PRC to settle the Taiwan issue by military means, including by boycott or embargo, would be considered a threat to the peace of the region and a matter of grave concern to the United States.

The biggest change from long-standing policy is the administration's belief that fulfilling former president Ronald Reagan's 1982 secret "Six Assurances" to Taiwan is an important element of US policy. The Six Assurances were conveyed to Taipei as a result of the August 17, 1982, Sino-US joint communique, in which the United States pledged that it "does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years ... and that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to final resolution". On this basis, the PRC argues that the US should no longer be selling arms to Taiwan at all.