US must stand firm as China rises against Taiwan: A mistake or desperation could turn any conflict into a nuclear confrontation

By Doug Bandow

Taipei Times

Saturday, Dec 13, 2003, Page 8

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (???) visited the US even as Beijing is breathing fiery threats of war against Taiwan. Washington must avoid any conflict. However, the Bush administration explained to China that it respects Taiwan's independent existence and that Chinese aggression would have catastrophic international consequences.

Taiwan was seized by Japan from China a century ago. Since 1949 Taiwan has hosted the nationalist government, the Republic of China (ROC), ousted by the communist revolution.

As part of its Cold War strategy, Washington shifted recognition from the ROC to the People's Republic of China. Over time Beijing has become an economic superpower active on the international stage; it is now aggressively pressing Taiwan to accept some form of "one nation, two systems" reunification.

Early this month the official Chinese press quoted Major-General Peng Guangqian as saying: "Taiwan's leader Chen Shui-bian(???) will be held responsible if a war breaks out across the Strait, and separatists on the island will be treated the same way war criminals are dealt with elsewhere in the world."

Of course, war would "break out" only if China invaded Taiwan. Taipei is not outfitting an expeditionary force to attack China.

China's current excitement stems from passage in Taiwan of a bill allowing a national referendum, which could raise the issue of independence. Beijing, which remains a communist dictatorship, obviously doesn't like the idea of people voting anywhere, and certainly not in Taiwan on the issue of independence. In advance of his US visit Prime Minister Wen declared that Washington must explicitly oppose Taiwanese independence.

There is no reason in principle why Taiwan should not be independent. China may have been victimized when Japan stripped Taiwan from its control, but that was a century ago and the people of Taiwan today have built a separate, and free, society.

However, logic does not diminish the importance of Taiwan to Chinese nationalists. It is not just communist apparatchiks who are willing to threaten military force against Taiwan.

Involvement in any war across the Taiwan Strait would be disastrous for the US. China is not Iraq; China is a nuclear-armed state aspiring to great power status. Although the US possesses a far superior military to that of Taiwan, a mistake or desperation could turn any conflict into a nuclear confrontation. At the same time, Washington likely would find itself bereft of allies in East Asia: neither Japan nor South Korea would likely choose to become a permanent enemy of Beijing by backing the US over Taiwan.

Southeast Asian states such as Singapore and Thailand would be no more enthused about being involved. Even Australia might hesitate to serve as the US' "deputy sheriff" in the region.

Moreover, the US has much at stake in a peaceful relationship with China. The economic ties are large and Beijing has the most leverage of any party over North Korea, which Washington seeks to discourage from developing nuclear weapons.

Still, the US neither can nor should hand the free people of Taiwan over to Beijing. Avoidance of war does not mean complicity in coercion.

First, Washington should insist that Taiwan's future is up to the people of Taiwan. Taipei obviously has an interest in talking with China, but the latter has no automatic claim to the allegiance of the Taiwanese people.

Second, it is not the US' place to pronounce its opinion on independence for Taiwan. The US formally recognizes only one China, but Taiwan is governed from Taipei, not Washington.

Third, the US will brook no criticism over who it allows to visit the US. China has complained about Chen's October stopover visit in New York, but the US remains a free country open to Taiwanese as well as Chinese.

Finally, Washington should indicate that it will continue to sell arms to Taiwan. The surest guarantee of peace in the Taiwan Strait is a well-armed Taiwan with the ability to deter any attack.

In fact, Taiwan should understand that the latter offers better security than does a US military commitment. No matter what previous administrations have promised, any US president will -- and, in fact, should -- hesitate before risking Los Angeles to protect Taipei. In a crisis Taiwan might find itself very alone.

Although Washington must avoid getting in the middle of any war between China and Taiwan, it must emphasize that any conflict would wreck China's global standing. Nor should the US deny Taiwan the tools to assert or defend itself. Beijing must understand that while Washington is sticking with its "one-China" position, Taiwan's future must be decided in Taipei.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan.