Part 8: Avoiding another no-win war

<> By
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

This article appeared in AToL on February 10, 2004

Taiwan residents nowadays take more than a million trips to the mainland annually, out of a population of 22 million, conducting business, visiting relatives and touring, as well as undertaking scholarly, cultural, and sports exchanges. More than 10 million visits have been made to the mainland by residents of Taiwan since cross-Strait contact was first permitted a decade ago.

Until a Taiwanese so identifies him/herself, there is no other way to distinguish him/her from other Chinese.

As of 2003, the United States exported US$20 billion worth of goods to Taiwan, and imported $30 billion. Taiwan is a world leader in several key information-technology areas, such as notebook computers, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and associated technologies. Taiwan is also positioning itself to be a player in emerging fields such as bio-technology and nano-technology. Taiwan is playing a key role in the emergence of a high-tech sector in the mainland economy. According to Taiwan's official statistics, Taiwanese private investment on the mainland exceeds $5 billion annually. According to China, Taiwanese investment exceeds $20 billion. The discrepancy has to do with Taiwanese funds flowing through Hong Kong and even through the US to the mainland. Funds directly from Taiwan amount to 8 percent of total foreign investment on the mainland, second only to Hong Kong's 60 percent and ahead of investment from both Japan and the US.

Trade between the mainland and Taiwan was in excess of $50 billion in 2003, up 25 percent from the previous year. The number of cross-Strait phone calls has passed 180 million annually. That is almost nine calls per capita for Taiwan and is still increasing at a phenomenal rate as China enters the communication age. The number of trips made annually by mainlanders to Taiwan for cultural and educational activities exceeds 13,000, and is expected to jump exponentially as soon as the political problem is resolved and tourism from mainlanders opens up, as it did recently for Hong Kong.

To facilitate cross-Strait consultation, the Republic of China (ROC) government established in February 1991 the quasi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). The SEF acts on behalf of the ROC government in dealing with cross-Strait affairs that the government cannot handle directly because of mutual non-recognition between the ROC and the People's Republic of China (PRC), but which require public authority. Ten months later, the PRC established an SEF counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS). These two organizations held in neutral Singapore the historic Koo-Wang talks of April 1993, out of which four agreements were signed, and issues stemming from cross-Strait exchanges continued to be discussed during another eight rounds of pragmatic talks.

Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States in June 1995 in his official capacity as president of the ROC violated the "one China" principle, causing Beijing to suspend all cross-Strait discussions. In response, Taipei adopted a more restrictive approach toward private investment on the mainland. Taipei currently does not allow direct transportation links between Taiwan and China except for a few strictly limited exceptions. This imposes substantial additional costs on Taiwanese travelers between Taipei and Shanghai, where several hundred thousand business people from Taiwan reside, because they cannot fly directly but must first stop over in Hong Kong, adding hours to the trip and inflating the cost. Lien Chan, the Guomindang (GMD, known on Taiwan as the Kuomintang or KMT) candidate for president, has said that if elected, his government will move immediately to implement the "three links" - direct cross-Strait trade, transportation and postal service. Nevertheless, cross-Strait interactions by the private sector continue to increase in areas that do not require government approval.

Beijing has long maintained that if Taiwan accepts the premise of being part of China, then, as the 2000 second PRC White Paper on Taiwan puts it, "any matter can be negotiated". Conversely, in Beijing's view, if Taiwan rejects this prerequisite premise, there is nothing to discuss. Hence, China again suspended quasi-official cross-Strait negotiations over Lee Teng-hui's 1999 remark that Taiwan and China have a "special state-to-state relationship" that Beijing asserted was tantamount to a rejection of the one-China principle. After the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, Beijing demanded that he reaffirm the one-China principle as a precondition for resuming cross-Strait talks. Chen's government refused, saying this would fatally compromise Taiwan's sovereignty and security.

Taiwan small in size but strong economically

Taiwan has a land area of only 36,260 square kilometers as compared with 9.6 million square kilometers on the mainland, which amounts to one-fifteenth of the world's land mass. Taiwan has a population of just 22 million, compared with 1.3 billion on the mainland. Despite its small land area, high population density and lack of natural resources, Taiwan has created an economic miracle with $220 billion a year in trade, an annual per capita income of more than $12,000, and one of the world's highest foreign-exchange reserves.

This accomplishment owes much to its stable political environment, leading to steady progress in local democratization. Over the past four decades, Taiwan has seldom faced riots. Large-scale group activities were rare before the Emergency Decree was lifted. Well-maintained public order, a stable government and political climate all combined to make Taiwan a low-political-risk area for investment, thereby encouraging international investors to go to Taiwan. Similarly, economic prosperity created public confidence and enthusiasm for participation in public affairs. People began to express their political stance and opinions directly (through participation in elections) and indirectly (through party affiliation), thereby leading to continuous political progress in tandem with economic growth.

Taiwan has exploited the rise of US moral imperialism to cement the US commitment to help defend a democratic and capitalistic Taiwan in the event that its political offensive toward perpetual de facto separation, or worse, formal independence, should provoke military conflict with the mainland. Officially, there is no such US commitment, but Taipei banks on post-Cold War US hegemony to carry out Taiwan's own pursuit of separatist objectives that the US may not officially endorse, but that tacitly also does not disapprove as long as it serves US geopolitical interests.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), Public Law 96-8 of April 10, 1979, which passes as a counterweight to normalization with the PRC, is a US domestic law designed to appease right-wing intransigence toward China in US domestic politics. As a US law, it carries a legal authority exceeding the three diplomatic communiques, which are diplomatic expressions of understanding between states with no legal authority - only diplomatic obligations. Successive US administrations have recognized that US policies on China and Taiwan are based on the three communiques - the Shanghai Communique of 1972, the Normalization Communique of 1978 and the August 17, 1982, Communique.

The TRA, with a legal guarantee of future arms sales to Taiwan, was passed by a veto-proof margin by both houses of Congress. The language on the defense of Taiwan contradicts US positions declared in the three communiques. The TRA mandates in a legal framework a much closer security relationship with Taiwan than is contemplated by the three communiques. The TRA establishes a continuing relationship between the United States and Taiwan on an unofficial basis in order to "preserve and promote extensive close and friendly commercial, cultural and other relations" - short of official recognition.

US Taiwan Act challenges China's sovereignty

It also states that the US considers that "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means including boycotts and embargoes is a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States". However, domestic laws are not applicable beyond US jurisdiction. To China, the TRA is a US law that illegally imposes extra-territoriality on Chinese territory and a direct challenge to Chinese sovereignty. It is as unreasonable as the National People's Congress passing a Chinese domestic law that "views with grave concern" president Dwight D Eisenhower sending federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce school segregation.

The Taiwan Enhanced Security Act (TESA), passed on February 1, 2000, by a bipartisan veto-proof vote of 341-70 in the House of Representatives, which legitimized increased US military assistance and sales to Taiwan, threatened to rupture US-China relations. The Senate subsequently narrowly defeated the measure. But the arms-sales contents of the legislation have been largely fulfilled, unofficially by administrative fiat.

China can rationally calculate that the United States will not actually intervene directly in the Taiwan Strait or come to Taiwan's defense with US troops in the event of armed conflict, if such intervention involves risks of heavy losses of American lives. Despite the TRA, and the defeated TESA, the US is still prevented by its own laws and by international law from legally intervening in Chinese internal affairs. Only extremists in the US will dispute that Taiwan is a Chinese internal-affairs matter.

But the US has historically shown a pattern of undeclared wars that managed to skirt both legality and constitutionality. The US performance in the first Iraq war and in conflicts in Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo demonstrated a lack of ultimate resolve to risk American lives in distant conflicts. The post-September 11, 2001, invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq with overwhelming force have, to some extent, changed this, albeit with problematic consequences in domestic politics. The invasions were declared operational successes by the executive branch. It was the peace that was supposed to follow the invasions that has been an undeniable failure.

In the US presidential campaign of 2000, both candidates in the first debate asserted that each would only send US troops into combat if a determination of a quick victory by overwhelming force were assured. That precondition, which has come to be known as the (US Secretary of State Colin) Powell Doctrine, does not exist in the Taiwan Strait.

China will sacrifice lives for Taiwan - US won't

While Taiwan is a vital interest of China and China has explicitly stated it will bear any sacrifice, including millions of lives and even entire cities to regain it, Taiwan is not a comparable vital interest for the United States. That is especially so if normal US-China relations hang in the balance at a time when the US geopolitical need for Chinese cooperation in the fight against terrorism is on the rise. Nor is the US prepared to make sacrifices comparable to China's over the Taiwan issue.

Chinese strategy thus may well aim at deterring US intervention on Taiwan by making clear that such intervention would entail exceedingly high costs in terms of American lives and in terms of diplomatic friction. Indeed, the conflict may not be confinable to only the Taiwan Strait. China will not initiate any preemptive strike against US forces, as history has shown that a Pearl Harbor-type attack would serve only to consolidate US resolve for total war. But to avoid any miscalculation on the part of the United States, China will have to leave no doubt about the prospect of high US casualties if the US chooses to intervene unprovoked in a limited armed conflict over Taiwan.

Strategically, the US has yet to understand that lack of progress in the Taiwan issue is preventing further normalization in US-China relations, a sine quo non for world peace. The lingering Taiwan problem also prevents domestic Chinese politics from focusing fully on China's development needs, by distorting China's national priorities and in its allocation of scarce resources toward military expenditure. A runaway escalation of the Taiwan issue will radicalize Chinese politics and that could have long-term spillover effects on the stability of the whole region. It complicates or may even derail developing Sino-Japanese relations.

Moreover, the US position on Taiwan will further isolate the United States from its residual Cold War allies with whom it has been having difficulties, over Iraq specifically and and over hegemonic US unilateralism generally. Most Asian governments are beginning to tilt toward China economically and diplomatically. The Europeans are not at all sympathetic to US interference in the Taiwan issue, as indicated by the success of the just-concluded visit to France by Chinese President Hu Jintao. French President Jacques Chirac on January 26 discussed bilateral relations and major international issues of common concern with the visiting Chinese president, reaching broad consensus.

Chirac, in a strong show of support for his visiting counterpart, warned Taiwan that it would be committing a "grave error" that could destabilize that region by holding a referendum in March. At a state dinner to honor the Chinese president, Chirac added his weight to China's opposition to the referendum plans of Taiwanese "President" Chen Shui-bian. "Breaking the status quo with a unilateral destabilizing initiative, whatever it is, including a referendum, would favor division over unity," Chirac said. "It would be a grave error. It would carry a heavy responsibility." Speaking later, Hu thanked Chirac for his "clear position of principle ... against the moves by the Taiwanese authorities that tend toward the independence of Taiwan through a referendum ... We firmly oppose the independence of Taiwan and will not let anyone separate Taiwan from the rest of China in one way or another."