How To Defuse The Taiwan Crisis

The Pacific Century has dawned early in Asia, with China flexing its muscles years before anyone anticipated. By launching military exercises designed to bully voters in Taiwan's first free presidential election, China is redefining the Asian landscape. Determined to thwart the island's feint toward independence, China's intimidation tactics are rattling the political stability that has shaped the region's economic prosperity. Southeast Asian nations, with their own territorial disputes with China, are on edge. Japan, which is banking much of its industrial future on low-cost production in Asia, is worried. Most important, the U.S. is being thrust into a pivotal--and dangerous--central role in the Pacific. None other than Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew believes America alone can act as a counterweight to China in the changing Asian balance of power.

The paradigm shift in the Pacific could mark the end of the moderate Deng Xiaoping era during which U.S.-China relations were increasingly defined by trade and investments. Thanks to Washington bungling in allowing Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui into the U.S., Chinese moderates are now discredited. Hard-liners, including the People's Liberation Army, are in charge of foreign policy. Jiang Zemin, engaged in a leadership struggle, cannot dominate the PLA the way Deng could, and the military's power has grown. The PLA, in charge of protecting China's sovereignty, decided to shoot missiles near Taiwan's ports, causing fear and a run on the currency.

Asian leaders now must wonder about China's intentions. China claims territory that Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines believe is theirs. Will Beijing decide that the disputed islands and oil fields also involve national sovereignty and are a matter for the PLA? Southeast Asia, once solely focused on economic growth, is now in the grip of an arms race. After this episode with Taiwan, it can only quicken.

The U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity no longer works. Washington must make crystal clear to China that while it still adheres to a one-China policy, it cannot allow the model of free-market Confucian democracy to be conquered by force. It must, at the same time, assure Beijing that it will not recognize the de jure independence of Taiwan. As a carrot, Washington should offer China entry into the World Trade Organization, with the proviso that it bring its economic policies up to developed-country standards in two years. Finally, face-to-face talks between President Clinton and Jiang Zemin should be encouraged. The talks should take place within the context of a Shanghai II conference that would outline U.S.-China relations and replace the Shanghai communique signed in 1972 by Zhou Enlai and President Nixon.

There is no cushion of goodwill left in Washington for China. Ditto for the U.S. in Beijing. This serious situation must be clarified at once, and steps must be taken to refocus U.S.-China policy back on economic growth, not military affairs. Both sides must act with caution and restraint.

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