Taiwan on the Brink

Speaking to a German radio interviewer last July, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui sparked a diplomatic fire storm with three seemingly innocuous words: Taiwan, he announced, would henceforth treat contacts with mainland China as "state-to-state" relations.

The Chinese government responded to this announcement with a furious barrage of invectives and a rapidly escalating chorus of threats against Taiwan. It even seemed for a time that we might be heading for a reprise of the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, in which China staged a series of menacing war games and lobbed ballistic missiles dizzyingly close to Taiwan's shores. The region ran to the brink of war, and calm was restored only after the United States sent two navy carrier groups into the South China Sea.

Thankfully, events last summer never escalated that far. But if a burgeoning group of American conservatives gets its way, we may not be so lucky next time around. With little critical attention from the press, a new, conservative Taiwan lobby is trying to drag Sino-U.S. relations in a confrontational direction and encouraging Taiwan to take an even more provocative stance. Driven more by the right's long-simmering antipathy toward China than by sound foreign policy goals, the new Taiwan lobby seems intent on inciting needless conflict to serve its own dubious ends.

The division of Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China) and mainland China (officially known as the People's Republic of China) is an artifact of the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek led his defeated Nationalist army onto what was then known as the island of Formosa. Since the 1970s, and particularly since 1979 when the United States withdrew diplomatic recognition from Taiwan and granted it to Beijing, peace along the Taiwan Strait has rested largely on a felicitous diplomatic fiction known as the "One China Policy." Under the One China Policy, all parties agree that there is, and can ever be, only one China; that Taiwan is part of China; and that the eventual resolution of the current division must be decided—peacefully—by the Chinese on both sides of the strait.

For almost a quarter-century, the question of Taiwan's unresolved status remained in relative quiescence. But then in the rapidly changing setting of the early 1990s, the question reasserted itself with a vengeance. A sizable minority of Taiwanese support the cause of independence—the formal declaration of which would almost certainly mean war with the mainland. And over the past decade, partly in an effort to garner some of those pro-independence votes, Lee Teng-hui's Nationalist Party has made a series of separatist gestures, several of which have sparked off crises with the mainland.

The problem for the United States is simple: Taiwan, for a number of political and historical reasons, has a de facto security guarantee from the United States. The point has never been stated quite so formally. But since the late 1970s, the United States has followed a policy of providing Taiwan with copious amounts of defensive weaponry and implying—without ever quite saying—that it would come to Taiwan's defense should the island fall under attack. (The exact wording of the policy, contained in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, states that America would view any attack on Taiwan as a matter of "grave concern.") In any event, most experts agree that whatever its nominal policy, the United States would almost certainly be drawn into any large-scale conflict between China and Taiwan.

Thus America's unhappy position: inescapably implicated in the consequences of Taiwan's relations with the mainland, but possessing a seemingly diminishing influence over Taiwan's conduct. The United States is like aninsurance company that has to issue a life insurance policy to a man on a bridge and then leave it him to choose whether or not to bungee jump without a rope.

Unfortunately, rather than pressing the Taiwanese to moderate their sometimes reckless course, the tendency of U.S. policy has been to move steadily in the opposite direction. Since 1996 the Clinton administration has pursued a two-pronged policy, simultaneously nudging both sides to return to thenegotiating table, but also broadening military-to-military ties with Taiwan and equipping the Taiwanese with an array of new weaponry. Still not satisfied, Taiwan's supporters in Congress are now pushing a new piece of legislation called the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would deepen military tiesbetween the United States and Taiwan and commit the United States much more fulsomely to defend Taiwan in the event of any war with the mainland.

Why the sudden drive to strengthen our security commitments to Taiwan, given that it places the United States in a more confrontational stance toward China? One key factor is Taiwan's long-standing and highly successful lobbying efforts in the United States. Even if it is true, as many charge, that Chinesenationals sought to influence the 1996 presidential election by funneling money to the Clinton-Gore campaign, those efforts pale in comparison to the elaborate—though legal—lobbying that Taiwan has practiced for years. In addition to spending millions of dollars on lobbying in Washington and funding an array of institutes and nonprofit foundations dedicated to cultivating stronger ties between the United States and Taiwan, the Taiwanese government brings countless congressional staffers and aides to Taiwan every year for all-expenses-paid vacations where the American guests attend seminars on Taiwanese culture and society.

But developments within American conservatism have been the most important factor driving our Taiwan policy. Over the course of the 1990s, paranoia about and hostility toward China have grown rapidly on the right, and the force of those anxieties has focused most strongly on the status of Taiwan. (Increasing support for Taiwan is not exclusive to Republicans—Taiwan has historically had strong support in the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle—but the energy and passion of Taiwan's growing support is unmistakably emanating from the right.)

Fascination and paranoia about China has a long history on the American right. In the 1940s and 1950s, the old China lobby mixed a strident antipathy toward communism with a deep commitment to the Protestant missionary impulse. (Many members of the group actually had close familial connections with Christian missionary work in China. The dean of the China lobby, Time magazine founder Henry Luce, was actually born to Christian missionaries and spent the first 10 years of his life in China.) Particularly during the early Cold War years, even though Russia was America's pre-eminent rival, it was the threat of communist China and the "red Chinese" that held the deepest emotional resonance for American conservatives. It was no coincidence that the most notorious far-right group of the second half of the twentieth century—the John Birch Society—was named for an American soldier-turned-missionary who was (so the mythologizing goes) betrayed by his own government and murdered by the red Chinese. In the 1970s and 1980s, persistent though muted conservative devotion to Taiwan still dogged the efforts of presidents Nixon and Reagan to further normalize relations with Beijing.

Today, the People's Republic of China—with its mixture of communism, persecution of Christians, and state-sponsored abortion—stimulates all the erogenous zones of the conservative body politic, and China has again become a favorite topic for conservative publications and Web sites. Conservative radio talk show hosts have even dusted off the once discarded phrase "chi-coms" to describe the citizens of the People's Republic.

More importantly, in the past few years, right-wingers and China-hawks have used a variety of scandals and pseudo-scandals to whip up a froth of hysteria about the dire threat China now poses to the United States. First there was the so-called Chinagate scandal in which Chinese nationals supposedly funneled money into the 1996 Clinton re-election campaign, perhaps in exchange for classified missile defense technology. Then there was the Chinese nuclear espionage scandal that dominated headlines earlier this year. MSNBC headlines screamed about China's "insatiable appetite" for secret American technology. CNN bellowed that China was using purloined American technology to "fulfill [its] international agenda." And political opportunists like GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes demanded that China's "punishment . . . be swift and strong."

One need not discount everything that has been charged in these various scandals to recognize that right-wing polemicists have repeatedly takeninstances of low-grade corruption (and sometimes entirely baseless accusations) to paint a menacing picture of China. Illegal campaign donations from shady Chinese businessmen became an insidious effort to corrupt American democracy, with possible treason in the White House. The alleged Chinese nuclearespionage became a grave national security crisis. There are, to be sure, plenty of reasons for unhappiness with China—its sorry record on weapons proliferation and its even sorrier record on human-rights abuses being the two most obvious reasons. But in reporting these various scandals, members of the mainstream media have allowed themselves to become the vehicles for a dark, Sinophobic political agenda, whose basis no one in the media bothered to explore or describe.

Beneath the radar screen of the mainstream media, but deeply agitating right-wing media circles, were a slew of even more far-fetched accusations. These included charges that the Chinese were trying to take possession of former U.S. navy bases and funnel assault weapons to Los Angeles street gangs in an attempt to destabilize American society. There is a story now gaining currency among China-hawks that China may be scheming to take possession of the Panama Canal. The evidence for this claim, which Trent Lott included in a recent letter to President Clinton, is that the subsidiary of a Hong Kong-based shipping multinational has obtained a lease from the Panamanian government to run two loading stations at either end of the canal. Frank Gaffney, a respected conservative foreign policy analyst and the director of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, did this canard about the canal one better by weaving it together with a tale of menacing Chinese influence across the Western hemisphere. In Gaffney's feverish speculation, China stands poised to augment its stranglehold on the canal by forging alliances with Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and various Andean nations—all as part of an effort to challenge American dominance of the West. (Gaffney even implied, at a recent Cato Institute panel discussion, that the Clinton administration's coddling of pro-independence forces in Puerto Rico might open that island up to Chinese infiltration as well.)

It's tempting to treat these frenzied ruminations as little more than a modern-day version of those conspiracy theories about fluoridated drinking water that exercised the right 40 years ago, fringe episodes that erupt and fade way without affecting the mainstream. But right-wing Sinophobia has already cast a broad penumbra over supposedly mainstream Republican foreign policy thinking. Republican presidential candidates actively vie with each other to see who can articulate the most scathing and confrontational policytoward China. George W. Bush, forexample, recently asserted that China "is an espionage threat to our country . . . an enemy of religious freedom and a sponsor of forced abortion— policies without reason and without mercy." And Republican officeholders across the country are lining up to support the erection of a so-called theater missile defense around Taiwan—the gambit most likely to spark the very military confrontation we should be seeking to avoid.

There is certainly room for reasonable people to disagree on the proper course of U.S. policy toward China. But all in all, the proposed tough line from the right starts to look rather different when the subterranean roots of their obsession are exposed to full view.

Establishing a right-minded policy on Taiwan is fraught with challenges and dangers. Despite the fact that it was once a military dictatorship, Taiwan now enjoys a vibrant and democratic political culture that includes civil liberties, a free press, and open elections. So long as the government on the mainland remains so far from sharing those attributes, it is not surprising that the island's inhabitants would want to chart their own destiny—either by doggedly maintaining the current quasi-state status-quo or by pursuing a more aggressive course toward outright independence. But the question for U.S. foreign policy is whether Taiwan should be allowed to play such a high-stakes game of brinkmanship on our dime. The delicate fiction of One China has kept the peace for almost three decades. Should the United States really underwrite the risks of eroding that fiction?

U.S. policy should of course favor democracies like Taiwan over repressive regimes like China. And the United States has now repeatedly made clear (both in Bosnia and Kosovo) that it will sometimes intervene to prevent or halt massive violations of human rights—especially when they undermineregional stability. But that's hardly the case in Taiwan. In fact, since 1993 China and Taiwan have conducted on-again, off-again negotiations over the future of cross-strait relations, and China's position in these negotiations was never to absorb Taiwan into the mainland outright. Rather China has sought what might be termed Hong Kong-plus—some variant of the "one country, two systems" model now in effect in Hong Kong, only with an even more attenuated connection between Taiwan and the mainland. Hardly the stuff of an East Asian Anschluss.

Many China-hawks now argue that Taiwan's status as a democracy is enough to qualify it for our almost unconditional support. They say we should follow the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Taiwan almost wherever they might take us. But a credible and realistic liberal internationalism should be flexible enough to balance our interests in democracy with our interests in regional stability and the condition of our relations with major military powers. Democracy and self-determination for Taiwan may be the ideal. But should we really be willing to go to war for it? More to the point, should we be courting war for it?

Too many on the right see any such balancing as nothing but capitulation, as though anything that doesn't actively antagonize China is tantamount toappeasing her. Yes, we do face serious foreign policy challenges in East Asia, and a number of them could bring us into conflict with China. But this is all the more reason to avoid points of antagonism unrelated to our vital national interests. The clearest way for the United States to become embroiled in a military confrontation over Taiwan would be for hawks in China and the United States to engage in a mutually reinforcing pattern of escalating suspicion and provocation.

Liberal internationalism, at its best, has always had the self-confidence and self-assurance to draw the distinction between toughness born of strength and needless antagonism-rooted insecurity. Unfortunately, many on the right today seem to approach foreign relations like a staggering drunk who can't make his way out of a bar without getting into a fight over some imagined point of wounded pride. We shouldn't follow their lead.