Bush Got One Right

The dramas in April over the downed U.S. reconnaissance plane and the sale of arms to Taiwan have revealed a burgeoning American hawkishness toward China. Centrists have joined conservatives in blaming America for being soft on the Communists and weak in supporting democratic Taiwan. But this growing fashion for fulmination is misguided, for two reasons: First, Beijing isn't being belligerent out of the blue; and second, selling Taiwan our highest-tech weapons is more likely to hurt Taiwan's democracy than to help it.

According to the expanding chorus of China hard-liners in Washington, the Bush administration performed a craven cave-in to bullying by an increasingly dangerous China when the United States expressed regret over the spy plane collision. Furthermore, according to these hard-liners, the administration executed an abject betrayal of democracy when it opted not to sell Aegis-class destroyers to Taiwan.

In fact, however, both moves were smart. They were also defensible on liberal principle and in terms of protecting Taiwan. Ironically, it may be up to liberal Democrats to point out the wisdom of the Bush team's moderate approach. What's needed is a way forward on China-and-Taiwan policy that is based on a nuanced reading of recent events.

Both sides in the 50-year China-Taiwan standoff are deeply entrenched. In 1949 the Chinese Nationalists (the KMT) lost the civil war against the Communists and retreated to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the KMT and the Communists have each aimed to complete the war by conquering the other's territory and creating "one China." For the KMT in Taiwan, retaking the Chinese mainland has become an increasingly unrealistic goal. For the Communists, taking Taiwan by force remains an option. The United States is rightly committed to ensuring that this option is never exercised.

In the early 1990s, though, it was Taiwan that decided to reach out to China. KMT President Lee Teng-hui declared an official end to the war and sought dialogue with the Communists. China responded favorably, and in 1992 both sides agreed that at least the concept of "one China" was potentially valid. On that basis, semi-official talks between China and Taiwan began.

On the Chinese side, Deng Xiaoping had set a less belligerent tone in the 1980s with his endorsement of economic liberalization. Although Tiananmen Square revealed that Deng had no qualms about the use of force at home, Deng also established a policy of avoiding conflict abroad as a requirement for China's internal stability. Despite his reputation as a militarist, Deng de-emphasized the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and reduced its budget.

As Deng lay dying in 1995, his successor, President Jiang Zemin, lacked legitimacy with the PLA. To strengthen his own civilian rule by further sidelining the army, Jiang made a bid for peaceful progress on the Taiwan question, issuing an eight-point proposal for eventual reunification. Jiang's plan offered dialogue and wide-ranging social and economic exchanges, and he staked his credibility on the overture by publicizing it widely. Within months, Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui responded with a six-point proposal of his own and agreed to talks, though he demanded that China renounce the use of force against the island.

Negotiations would probably have followed, but the KMT's dictatorship in Taiwan was under increasing pressure from a native Taiwanese democracy movement. In particular, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) eschewed the KMT's dream of a reunified China, advocating Taiwanese independence instead. By 1995 the KMT was facing Taiwan's first presidential election. To win, Lee Teng-hui had to draw support away from the pro-independence DPP. So he dropped his "one China" reunification rhetoric and sought more recognition for Taiwan on the international stage. That led to Lee's unprecedented visit to the United States in May 1995, to speak at his alma mater, Cornell University.

Because the United States had promised, as part of the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979, to suspend all ties with Taiwan, China was caught off guard. Under pressure from the Taiwan lobby, the Clinton administration failed to prepare Beijing for the event or to offer concessions. Lee's visit indicated to Beijing that Washington supported Taiwan's new inclination toward independence rather than negotiations toward reunification.

In Beijing, Jiang's bid for progress through dialogue appeared to have failed badly. Having lost face, Jiang was forced to yield to hard-liners and the PLA on the Taiwan question--and a few weeks later, China began lobbing missiles into the sea near Taiwan. A month before Taiwan's presidential election in early 1996, China mobilized its military for massive war games and launched additional missiles.

The United States responded with a formidable show of force that highlighted the PLA's impotence, dispatching two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the waters around Taiwan. In the years that followed, the PLA armed itself to the teeth in the Taiwan Strait to preclude further humiliation. The Chinese military establishment, sidelined since the 1980s, had re-established itself.

Last spring, shrugging off threats from China, Taiwan's voters went to the polls in their second presidential election and peacefully ended four decades of dictatorship by the KMT. DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian was elected president by a narrow margin. Beijing watched nervously: Chen's party had advocated independence, and it seemed that Chen might move Taiwan further away from reconciliation with the mainland, precipitating a crisis.

But the result has been more complex. Since Chen's historic election, Taiwan's newly democratic culture has also evinced a subtler fiber: respect for public opinion. Chen has recognized that while popular sentiment favors a more assertive Taiwan, this sentiment does not extend to moves that would antagonize China. After his inauguration, Chen dropped his proindependence rhetoric and distanced himself from the more extreme elements of the DPP. Where the conservative KMT had adopted a measure of idealism about Taiwan's future by bucking Beijing, the more radical opposition discovered that, once in power, realism was required.

Despite China's continued belligerency, this change in Taiwan has brought a tentative return to a revised status quo, allowing both China and Taiwan to extend feelers for restarting reunification talks. Over the past 10 months, China and Taiwan have opened the first-ever shipping links between Taiwanese territory and the mainland; meanwhile, in exchanges that are often barbed but clearly exploratory, the two sides are engaged in a delicate dance to renegotiate the notion of "one China."

Last June, Chen indicated that the "one China" principle was not inherently a problem, and Beijing responded by offering a minute but conciliatory shift in the wording of its "one China" definition. On New Year's Eve, Chen went so far as to embrace implicitly the "one China" principle--with the caveat that it might apply in the future rather than in the present. More recently, Chen specifically offered to hold talks with Beijing on the question of unification.

No one actually expects Taiwan to rejoin China any time soon, and ultimately a loose federation is more likely than reunification. But restarting the talks would have a chance of buying much-needed breathing space, as well as leading to new economic and social exchanges between Taiwan and the mainland, further reducing tension. One of the primary stumbling blocks to renewed talks was opposition by militant hard-liners in Beijing to the sale of American Aegis-class destroyers to Taiwan.

Ironically, had the Bush administration decided to sell Taiwan the Aegis system with the intention of bolstering Taiwan's burgeoning democracy, the result might have been quite the opposite: to undermine that young democracy. Taiwan's military establishment, which initiates arms-procurement requests to the United States, has so far remained loyal to the KMT and its legacy of military dictatorship. Taiwan's top brass have treated the popular election of Chen Shui-bian and the DPP with disdain and have blocked reforms that would transfer policy making on defense matters to the civilian leadership, which is where decision making belongs in any proper democracy.

For the moment, China seems to have been mollified by the Bush administration's relative moderation, and Taiwan has access to a considerable array of new American weaponry even without Aegis. The time is ripe to pursue peaceful negotiation by restarting the dialogue between China and Taiwan. Here liberal Democrats have an opportunity to seize the initiative from right-wing critics and their new allies by articulating the wisdom of a moderate approach. In championing prudence, Democrats would help to ensure the protection of Taiwan's democracy that hawkish fulminators so desire.