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Monday, January 1, 2001

Appeasing China, Backing Taiwan?


Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

One of the powers that governments most jealously guard is that of determining who visits one’s country. Washington is notorious not only for barring people from coming to America permanently, but also for refusing to let people visit who might want to come permanently.

China goes further, however. It seems to believe that it should regulate visitation not only for itself, but also for other nations. Last year the State Department went out of its way to accommodate China’s criticism of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s brief stopover in Los Angeles. As my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter uncharitably observed, “Clinton administration officials once again have their lips firmly planted on Beijing’s boot.”

Taiwan is isolated, but not alone. Twenty-nine nations still recognize the Republic of China, and President Chen was traveling to Central America to visit some of Taiwan’s friends. That meant a stop in Los Angeles.

Naturally, this upset Beijing, which claims the island state as its own. Apparently no Taiwanese—at least, no Taiwanese official of note—is supposed to visit America, even for 16 hours, unless China approves.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) made much the same argument six years ago, when President Lee Teng-hui attended a reunion at Cornell University, his alma mater. The administration promised to deny Lee’s visa application, until congressional protests forced it to retreat. (Then the State Department assured Beijing that Lee’s visit was “private.”)

On President Clinton’s 1998 visit to Beijing, he uttered his famous “three noes”—no U.S. support for a two-China policy, Taiwan’s independence, or even Taipei’s membership in international organizations for which statehood is required. His effusive support for the PRC undercut Taiwan’s quest to forge a separate identity.

Now comes President Chen’s visit, which, Beijing declared, could “severely” damage Sino-American relations. Although the administration decided not to declare the nation that claims to lead the “free world” off limits to the head of state of a vibrant capitalist democracy, it did go out of its way to quarantine him.

Reassuring Beijing that the visit was private was always simple: no administration official need meet with Chen. But the administration attempted to prevent him from meeting with anyone else, including congressmen. It reportedly informed Chen that he could expect future visas only if he kept this trip totally private.

Even this timorous behavior did not satisfy the PRC. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao expressed his government’s “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” after Washington issued Chen a visa. Representative Dana Rohrabacher broke through the U.S. cordon and met with Chen at the latter’s hotel. Otherwise, Chen might as well have landed in Phnom Penh or Cairo as in Los Angeles.

How could a U.S. president, representing the most important and powerful nation on earth, so abase himself? America’s policy toward both Taiwan and China is bankrupt.

Good relations with the PRC are important. It is the world’s most populous state; it could eventually generate the globe’s biggest economy. It sits in the midst of the world’s most dynamic economies.

Thus Washington should encourage the PRC to move in a more liberal direction. Particularly important is allowing private trade to flourish in order to encourage the sort of cultural and economic ties that make a freer, more democratic China more likely. Nothing is certain, but more private, and especially profitable private, contact makes more freedom more likely.

Equally important, America should not defend the Republic of China. In fact, the creation of a genuinely free society entitles the Taiwanese to chart their own future. But prudence requires the United States to exercise caution in backing that right.

Taiwan exercises a surprisingly powerful hold on Chinese emotions. More than a century of domestic weakness and foreign domination are yielding to growing affluence and influence. Strong is the desire to use that new power to reunify a country artificially dismembered in past years.

Nationalistic feeling toward Taiwan is not limited to communist officials. It is shared by many Chinese expatriates. A surprising number of westernized Chinese professionals turn into raving Sino-nationalists when the question of Taiwan arises.

That Beijing cares, and cares passionately, requires Washington policymakers to take seriously the possibility that China is willing to use force against Taiwan, is unlikely to treat American threats to intervene seriously, and is ready to take what Washington would consider to be irrational risks to “recover” Taiwan.

That means a defense guarantee cannot be offered in the belief that it represents cheap deterrence, a bluff that will never be called. To the contrary, such a step has a disturbing potential of leading to war between America and China, a nuclear-armed state.

Destabilizing Guarantee

Indeed, a perceived American guarantee would be destabilizing. It would directly confront Beijing, forcing the leadership to make a decision instead of putting off the issue. At the same time, such a policy would encourage Taiwanese political forces, which are already pushing toward independence. For instance, Lee Teng-hui has published a new book calling for it.

President Chen is so far following a more moderate course, but members of his own Democratic Progressive Party have forced him to retreat from his conciliatory endorsement of the “one-China” principle. The common belief that the Seventh Fleet will steam to Taiwan’s rescue in any conflict not only encourages Taipei officials to be more assertive, but has caused some voters to support Chen. On election eve last March, one told the Washington Times: “Beijing will not resort to force carelessly” since the U.S. backs Taiwan.

But the United States should not risk war when the interest at stake is not vital. Taipei is an attractive friend, but that alone is not enough. Nor do threats make sense where there are alternative means to achieve the desired end. For instance, permitting U.S. manufacturers to sell weapons to Taiwan would ensure its deterrent capabilities.

Yet just as the consequences of defending Taiwan are potentially grave, so are those of appeasing the PRC. China’s appetite for concessions is endless: Last July it sharply protested when Great Britain allowed former President Lee to visit. Groveling before Beijing will merely generate new demands.

While Washington need not defend other nations’ independence, it must protect freedom at home, including the right of Americans to allow others to visit their country.


  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.