President George W. Bush's first major foreign-policy decision will come at the end of April when he will have to decide what kind of military hardware to sell Taiwan. The debate will be somewhat technical, but very important: It involves America's stance toward a region of the world where the fate of democracy is at stake and where a major war could eventually occur. And American liberals, who usually have something to say about almost any foreign-policy issue, from East Timor to Northern Ireland, have been almost entirely absent from this debate.
The Taiwanese want, among other things, Patriot 3 antimissile systems and four Aegis destroyers that could be used to counter the Chinese missile buildup and to prevent a naval blockade. But the Chinese government does not want the U.S. to sell any arms to Taiwan. Addressing the United States in a press conference, Sha Zhukang, head of arms control in China's Foreign Ministry, said, "Taiwan is part of China... . Arms sales to a part of a country is wrong." Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, however, the United States has to "make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." The question is what is sufficient.
While there is a complicated military debate over whether the Aegis destroyers are the right weaponry to deter a Chinese missile attack or blockade, the underlying issue is more important. The People's Republic of China (PRC) is very unlikely to invade Taiwan. Rather, its strategy is to intimidate the island into accepting Beijing's political rule by amassing a military threat across the Formosa Strait. That threat grows each year, as China adds missiles to its arsenal. On one hand, if the United States does not sell Taiwan arms to counter the PRC buildup, it is likely that the Taiwanese will feel compelled to agree to reunification on China's terms--which means ceding political control to the PRC. On the other hand, if the United States sells Taiwan enough arms not just to counter an invasion or blockade but to remove the credible threat of one, then the Taiwanese are likely to hold out for something like a federation in which they preserve their own form of independent government. They might even opt for independence. This would infuriate the Chinese and precipitate a period of hostility, with reprisals against American businesses.
The debate over how to approach the China-Taiwan conundrum pits former Republican officials and business lobbyists on one side against very conservative politicians on the other--and in this case the very conservative politicians are on the side of the angels. The pro-China lobby, which opposes doing anything on Taiwan that could disrupt U.S.-China relations, includes the U.S.-China Business Council as well as the academics and former officials of the Scowcroft Group, Kissinger Associates, and the U.S.-China Policy Foundation. This lobby enjoys the quiet support (most politicians don't like to speak publicly on behalf of China) of about half the Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
China's defenders argue that the U.S. has a greater interest in maintaining friendly relations with Beijing than it does in ensuring a minimum level of democratic independence for Taiwan. "Reunification on terms like those proposed by Beijing would threaten no American or allied interest," says former Reagan administration official Chas W. Freeman, a co-chairman of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation. There are two kinds of geopolitical arguments for this position. The first is Kissingerian realism: China, according to this argument, will inevitably dominate Asian politics and its government is likely to remain authoritarian and fully committed to annexing Taiwan. The U.S. therefore should attempt to foster stability in Asia by enmeshing China in a world trading system that will deter it from trying to impose its will on its neighbors by force. One key to the success of this strategy is the reunification of China and Taiwan--even on terms that Beijing proposes.
The second argument for allowing China to annex Taiwan on Beijing's terms is based on free market determinism. The determinists believe that as capitalism grows in China, the Chinese will be unable to sustain a hypercentralized political system and will move toward greater political freedom. "The most effective way available to us of promoting respect for human rights and democracy in China is by pursuing policies that will increase the wealth and raise the living standards of the country," Owen Harries wrote in The National Interest. "The correlation between rising incomes and democratization is a very strong one." The determinists think that if Taiwan is absorbed into China, even on terms unfavorable to Taiwan, the smaller country's free market system (along with Hong Kong's) will undermine the Chinese political system. Taiwan may not get what it wants in the initial negotiations, but if it sticks around, it will eventually be part of a democratic China.
The pro-Taiwan lobby includes some small conservative think tanks like Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy and some prominent academics like Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania. It is vocally represented on Capitol Hill by conservative Republicans such as Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Congressman Dana Rohrbacher of California, who retain their decades-old loyalty to Taiwan as a bastion of anticommunism, and by conservative publications, including The Weekly Standard and Human Events. Some of these conservatives want to continue fighting the Cold War and seek to defend Taiwan by isolating China economically and diplomatically. But there is also a--to stretch the term--moderate version of this pro-Taiwan position that provides an effective response to the PRC's defenders.
Taiwan's supporters reject the realists' vision of a stable Asia anchored by a communist PRC. Instead, they argue that a communist-dominated China will continue to be a source of tension and potential war. Greater trade and investment won't necessarily make China more democratic. In the short run, they believe, it could make China more dangerous as its rulers seek to overcome the centrifugal tendencies of free market capitalism. If a transition to democracy does occur, it will likely involve the kind of protracted turmoil that affected South Korea and is presently crippling Indonesia. And whether that instability will finally result in a more democratic system will depend largely on what is occurring in the rest of Asia. If the United States were to acquiesce now in the destruction of Taiwan's democracy, say the country's supporters, a democratic outcome in China would be less likely.
Instead of orienting American efforts in the Far East around China, Taiwan's supporters want the United States to focus its Asian policy on strengthening Japan, South Korea, and the other democratic nations in Asia, including Taiwan. While some unreconstructed Cold Warriors want to isolate China, many Taiwan supporters share the realist's goal of enmeshing China in the world economy. They backed China's entry into the World Trade Organization and U.S. attempts to engage China in negotiations over nuclear proliferation and regional stability. They believe that these steps can eventually move China toward democracy and responsible international behavior--but only if such steps are coupled with a commitment to the preservation of Taiwan's democratic government. That can't happen unless the United States provides Taiwan with sufficient arms to deter the Chinese from negotiating through threat of force.
During the Clinton years, the United States embraced a combination of Kissingerian realism and economic determinism. While Clinton sent two aircraft carriers in 1996 to counter China's missile exercises off Taiwan's coast, he turned down Taiwanese requests for advanced arms and provided China's Jiang Zemin with a promise of "three nos": The United States would not support Taiwan's independence, the creation of two Chinas, or Taiwan's admission to the United Nations. Moreover, in advocating a "strategic partnership" with China, Clinton not only appeared ready to grant China primacy over Japan in Asia but also seemed willing to trade away U.S. support for Taiwan and human rights in China in exchange for China's willingness to welcome American investment. All in all, Clinton's policies represented a distinct step back from the first Bush administration, which in August 1992 had defied China by agreeing to sell Taiwan 150 F-16 fighters.
In his statements during the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised to regard China as a "competitor" rather than a "strategic partner," but he never said what this entailed. His administration includes two former Reagan and Bush administration officials, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who are on record supporting Taiwan's right to negotiate with China under peaceful conditions. In a paper last year, Wolfowitz argued that ensuring democracy in Taiwan was essential to promoting it in China.
In my view, we should stop viewing Taiwan as an obstacle in U.S.-China relations and start viewing it more as an opportunity. If we're going to continue pursuing a one-China policy, as I believe we should, then we should stop saying that we have little ability to support democracy in China when the fate of Taiwan's democracy may be in our hands.
But both in and around the Bush administration, there are also supporters of a more conciliatory stand toward China. They include many of Bush's business contributors; some members of his family, including his uncle Prescott Bush, a prime investor in China; former Bush officials like Brent Scowcroft; and, perhaps, Vice President Dick Cheney, who after his service in the previous Bush administration took a job at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter as a door opener in China. The Chinese are already trying to gull George W. Bush into ignoring Taiwan by promising silence on the president's plans for national missile defense. It would be a cruel irony if Bush takes this bait, since Taiwan is one of the few places that could really use such a missile security system.
Missing in action from this political debate are most liberal Democrats. Historically, liberals, goaded by McCarthyite enthusiasm for Chiang Kai-shek, saw little difference between Maoist China and Chiang's dictatorial rule in Taiwan. If anything, they favored China as a misbegotten but well-meaning attempt to form an egalitarian utopia. But during the 1990s, Taiwan shed the last vestiges of Kuomintang rule, and it has created the basis for a multiparty democracy. Last year it elected a president, Chen Shui-bian, who spent part of the 1980s as a political prisoner. All in all, Taiwan's political and economic success represent one of the great achievements of postWorld War II Asia.
Some liberal Democrats, such as New Jersey Representative Rob Andrews, have embraced Taiwan, but many act as if Chiang were still in charge. In last year's debate over the Aegis, for instance, the liberal Center for Defense Information accused those who favor the Aegis sale of spurring "a full-throated cross-Strait arms race"--thus implying that Taiwan, and not the PRC, is responsible for this arms race. And the same human rights activists who loudly condemn China's hold over Tibet ignore Taiwan. Liberals clearly need to rethink their position on China and Taiwan--or else cede the moral ground of foreign policy to Jesse Helms and The Weekly Standard.