Should the U.S. start worrying about the prospect of armed conflict between China and Taiwan? After almost a decade of relative peace, China is conducting military exercises just 95 miles from Taiwan, including test-firing missiles and practicing blockade maneuvers. The objective? To influence Taiwan's first-ever direct presidential elections, to be held next March, and dissuade Taiwan from edging toward formal independence. This raises the appalling possibility of ever-escalating military tensions between two countries that are both strategically and economically critical for the U.S.
Since the 1970s, the U.S. has maintained a "one-China" policy, which is based on the diplomatic fiction that the mainland and Taiwan are both part of the same country, while unofficially keeping up economic and security ties to Taiwan. But both China and Taiwan have changed dramatically in the decades since the policy was formed. Taiwan has become an economic powerhouse and a main supplier of electronic components to the U.S. Politically, the country has been steadily moving from being a brutal dictatorship to a full democracy led by a new generation of Taiwan-born politicians, such as current President Lee Teng-hui, who are more interested in gaining international recognition than in working toward reunification with the mainland. At the same time, China has moved from basket case to budding superpower: It has pumped up both its economy and its armed forces enough to be confident of its ability to mount an effective blockade of Taiwan.
Over the long run, the U.S. needs to conduct a high-level policy review to reassess and perhaps update its one-China policy. Right now, however, is not the time to be making dramatic changes in longstanding policies. Because of the uncertainties of the coming succession in Beijing, the Chinese leadership is exceptionally unwilling to show signs of weakness. Not even the moderates in Beijing want to be seen as soft on Taiwan.
For now, the U.S. must move carefully. It must put a priority on buttressing the status quo, which has enabled both the Taiwanese and Chinese to prosper. The Clinton Administration and Congress can't simply bury their heads in the sand and hope this conflict will fade away. Despite the legitimate appeal of a Taiwan legally separate from China, the U.S. can't afford to egg on pro-independence Taiwanese politicians by giving them false hopes that it would defend them against a Chinese invasion. That means, for example, discouraging Taiwan from applying for membership in the United Nations, a move sure to inflame China.
At the same time, the U.S. must send a clear and unambiguous message to the Chinese that it's totally unacceptable to use military power to intimidate a neighbor. Hillary Rodham Clinton should cancel her trip to Beijing for the upcoming U.N. Conference on Women to show Washington's disapproval of both China's saber-rattling and its treatment of human rights activist Harry Wu. And President Clinton should ask former President George Bush to defer his scheduled trip to China as well. Additional actions may be difficult at a time when Boeing, Ford, Lockheed Martin and other companies are making major new sales in China. But the U.S. needs a politically stable Asia even more than it needs market access.