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Jewish World Review May 7, 2001 / 14 Iyar 5761

Philip Terzian

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Whatever it takes -- THE People's Republic of China regards Taiwan as a "renegade province," and has made it clear that it intends to end it renegade status one of these days. But the United States is committed, by treaty, to furnish Taiwan with the means to defend itself against attack, and President Bush recently approved a new package of advanced weaponry, much to Beijing's irritation. So President Bush was asked by reporters: What would the United States do if China attacked Taiwan? The United States, replied Mr. Bush, would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself."

Diplomacy being the art that it is, it should come as no surprise to report that the diplomatic community, especially here in Washington, nearly swooned at the sound of those words. You see, while the United States is obligated to furnish Taiwan with the means to defend itself, it has never specified exactly what that means. Or, for that matter, why the United States would maintain interest in defending Taiwan's "renegade" status. In 1972 President Nixon signed the famous Shanghai Communique, which declared "that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position."

It is fair to say that, so far as official American policy is concerned, that presumption merely deepened with time. When President Carter declared in 1979 that Beijing is "the sole legal government of China" the United States severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. And in 1982 President Reagan declared that the United States "does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan .... [and] intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution."

Yet President Bush has clearly shifted gears. And despite the best efforts of various spokesmen in the White House and State Department to clarify his words, it is evident that the United States will not only raise the level of arms sales to Taiwan, but will contemplate military action -- "whatever it took" -- to defend Taiwan against Chinese attack.

What happened? Well, two things, really. First, our relations with the People's Republic have evolved dramatically in 30 years. It must be remembered that when Richard Nixon visited Beijing, it was not only the first visit of an American president to China, but the first American recognition (after 23 years) of Mao's communist revolution. In that sense, the Shanghai Communique reflected the conventional wisdom of the day: There were a billion Chinese and 20 million people on Taiwan, and it was no longer tenable to pretend that Taipei somehow represented China.

In the intervening decades, China served not only as a strategic partner in the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, but its huge population and untapped markets beckoned to American commerce. Now the Cold War is over, and China enjoys an $84 billion trade surplus with the United States. Moreover, while Russia has effectively been downsized on the world stage, China is clearly expanding its purview, and regards the United States as an obstacle to supremacy.

Most important, however, is Taiwan's metamorphosis. When Richard Nixon went to Beijing, Chiang Kai-shek still ruled the Republic of China with an iron fist. Of course, the status of Taiwan was always a pretense: The Generalissimo's exiled nationalist government was no more representative of China than the exiled court of King Farouk embodied Egypt. Taiwan personified our disapproval of Mao's regime, and the fact that Chiang Kai-shek was no democrat proved an embarrassment we were willing to endure.

That was then. Chiang died in 1975, the system he created is wholly dismantled, and Taiwan is now a healthy, functioning democracy. That is the extent to which the landscape has evolved. Beijing is no longer a card to be played against Moscow, and Taipei is no longer the capital of a military oligarchy. Under those circumstances, it is consistent with historic American principles to regard the preservation of Taiwan's democracy -- especially if it is threatened by an expansionist police state -- As America's business.

The truth is that trends and events have long superseded policy. Even though any discussion of Taiwan's political independence is diplomatically toxic, the Republic of China is, for all intents and purposes, as democratically independent as Canada or Italy. Of course, we uttered scarcely a murmur when the British handed Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997. But Hong Kong was a British colony; and while public opinion in Hong Kong was divided on reunion, there is near-unanimous sentiment on Taiwan to remain free and independent of control from Beijing.

Now the question is: What does whatever-it-takes demand, and do Americans look upon Taiwan as a nuisance, or a kindred state deserving our support?

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal