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“It would be a mistake
to let China’s saber-rattling
sway American policy. ”

by Thomas D. Grant

The author, an international lawyer based in Massachusetts and a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University, has a scholarly interest in the international recognition of nation states. During the 1999-2000 academic year, he holds a research fellowship at the Max Planck Institute at Heidelberg, Germany. ~ Ed.

This past summer, the fifty-year crisis between China and Taiwan seemed to have entered a new and particularly vexed stage. Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, said that his country is going to drop the old ‘One China’ formulation that had been the basis of delicate relations between the governments of Taipei and Beijing for some time. What does this mean, and what, if anything, should the United States do about it?

A policy shift in the direction talked about today in Taiwan would indeed be momentous. After Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party forces had been defeated in China and fled to Taiwan, they set about there to reconstruct their government. The power of this government would in fact be limited to the safe haven furnished by that Maryland-sized island.

However, the claims made by Chiang Kai-shek’s government were, from the start, much larger.

Though evicted from the Mainland, the Nationalist Party continued to claim to be the sole legally valid government of China. In its first decades on Taiwan, the Nationalist Party’s claims were still accepted by important powers, especially the United States. The new communist government seemed implacably hostile to America and the West. Moreover, its hold on power, at least at first, was not all that certain. By 1979, however, it was clear that communist China—the People’s Republic of China—was here to stay. The United Nations had stripped China’s Security Council seat from Taiwan and given it to the PRC. Many important countries had ceased to accept the Nationalist Party claim to be the legitimate ruler of all China. So, in 1979, the Carter Administration declared that it no longer recognized Taiwan as the Republic of China. From then on, the United States would recognize the PRC as the only ‘China.’

And, in one limited way, this satisfied Taiwan and the Mainland. Both governments, in Taipei and Beijing, continued to take the view that there was only one China. They differed, because they both claimed to govern that one China. But they agreed that China was one and indivisible.

This put Taiwan in a curious position. In actuality, Taiwan was an independent country. It made its own laws, followed its own foreign policy, maintained its own armed forces, kept free markets, and traded—a lot—with the West. However, Taiwan never declared itself independent. International lawyers studying the Taiwan-China problem had trouble describing this set of circumstances. The two places were clearly separate systems under separate governments. But they were not separate states. The word ‘state’ here means a country independent in law (and perhaps more broadly in world affairs) from all other countries—but it also means more. To be a state, a country must claim to be a state.

And that is what made the situation in Taiwan unusual. Taiwan had almost all the traits of a separate state, except that it never claimed to be a separate state. It claimed, instead, to be China. The PRC, based in Beijing, also claimed to be China and viewed Taiwan simply as a rebel province.

The point of conflict here is readily apparent—two mutually hostile governments both claiming the same turf. But the point of agreement, obscure to most outsiders, was equally important. There was never to be a division of China into two or more states.

Now Taiwan says it might declare itself an independent state. Taiwan statehood would mean an end to the ‘One China’ policy. And the PRC has threatened to go to war.

It is not surprising that China is hypersensitive to Taiwan. Taiwan has developed a functioning democracy, and China has made clear, since Tiananmen Square, that it opposes democracy. Taiwan’s economy, on a per capita basis, outperforms China’s tremendously. Moreover, China fears a potential break-up of its own lands. Leaders in Beijing, many quite elderly, remember the time when China was broken apart by civil war and invasion. Before that, in the 1920s, the country was also much-divided, with local ‘war lords’ holding sway and central authorities basically powerless. It is a return to such chaos that Beijing most fears, and an independent Taiwan stokes those fears. That Taiwan is in actuality independent from China is bad enough. For Taiwan to declare formally that it is a separate, independent state would be even worse. This is why the PRC has threatened to use force if Taiwan declares independence.

So what should the United States do?

It would be a mistake to let China’s saber-rattling sway American policy. The leaders of China would take this to mean that they can get what they want from the West by threatening violence. Thus schooled, China would be much more likely to use threats to get what it wants in the South China Sea (oil), in Vietnam and India (border changes), and even in Russia’s thinly-populated and isolated eastern flank, Siberia (gold, timber, oil, gas, land).

It would also be a mistake to abandon Taiwan. In the last decade, Taiwan has become arguably the most functional democracy in Asia. Its economy is brilliant. Its trade with America is vast and mutually beneficial. Moreover, Taiwan is already armed to the teeth and, with or without short-term American backing, Taiwan, though likely to be destroyed, would inflict terrible casualties on China if there were a war. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Taiwan armed forces cooperated closely with Israel and South Africa, both of which developed atomic bombs. Nobody should be surprised if Taiwan declares that is has nuclear weapons.

The United States should make clear to China that we stand by our commitments to Taiwan in the Taiwan Relations Act. We should further emphasize that we and the rest of the civilized world reject aggression as a means to settle disputes. China argues that it may do as it wishes toward Taiwan because Taiwan is part of China. On this point, too, the United States must make itself clear. Taiwan, we should tell China, is very unusual—perhaps unique in the world. It exists in a peculiar legal limbo between China and independent statehood. We should tell China that an independent Taiwan, if it comes to that, does not set any example for the rest of China. Taiwan is simply too unusual to be a valid precedent for other situations. It does not mean anything for Tibet or for Hong Kong or for South China. We should affirm that we recognize as one and indivisible the territory that forms the China actually ruled by Beijing. We should also remind China that the world accepted as separate and independent states the two Germanies, the two Yemens, and the two Koreas, yet continued in all three cases to work toward reunification.

But at the same time, we should reject, loudly and clearly, any claim by China that China has a right to use force against Taiwan. Approaching Taiwan in this way—acknowledging China’s fears but not giving in to China’s threats—is the safest road ahead. 

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