- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001


During Chinese Vice Prime Minister Qian Qichen's visit to the United States this week, his principal goal will be to convince the Bush administration not to sell new, advanced weapons to Taiwan. A decision on the sales is due from the administration in April. This year's decision is more fraught with consequences than usual, for it comes at a turning point for all concerned.
In China, Jiang Zemin is preparing to step down from his leadership post in 2002. Accomplishing Taiwan's merger with the mainland is a key element in establishing his legacy. His predecessors, Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiao-ping, brought Tibet and Hong Kong under Beijing's control. Mr. Jiang will look like a failure if he does not make great strides toward reunification with Taiwan.
Not surprisingly, China's policy toward Taiwan has grown increasingly belligerent. Last year, in a major policy shift, China announced that Taipei's failure to resume talks on unification would be grounds for military action. Previously, the Chinese position was: "If you veer from the status quo, we will use force." Now the position is, "If you cling to the status quo, we will use force."
China has spent enormous sums over the past decade improving its ability to launch an attack on Taiwan, deploying hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles and buying advanced aircraft, submarines, surface ships and cruise missiles from Russia. And Beijing announced earlier this month that it intends to increase its military spending by 18 percent this year.
Meanwhile, Taiwan is also at a crossroads as a result of its extraordinary transformation from dictatorship to democracy. Last March, Taiwan accomplished its first-ever peaceful transfer of power from the long-ruling Kuomintang to the Democratic Progressive Party of new president Chen Shui-bian. Despite its historic political transformation and conciliatory policies toward the mainland however, Taiwan has yet to be welcomed by the democratic family of nations. In fact, Taiwan remains as isolated as ever.
More worrying still, it is becoming increasingly vulnerable to Chinese military pressure. While Taiwan has tried to respond to China's efforts by reforming its own military, it does not have the wherewithal to counter China's build-up alone. Only the United States, or its allies, can provide the necessary "hardware" (submarines, and air and missile defenses) and "software" (from training to assistance in developing operational doctrines) to offset the mainland's new capabilities.
Moreover, it often takes years to build and deliver the weapons systems Taiwan needs. And years of delayed sales by the United States have allowed China to build up its own capabilities without a corresponding build-up on Taiwan's side of the Strait.
Which brings us to the United States. The end of the Cold War brought a substantial shift in American strategic priorities. Put simply, the biggest challenge to American interests is no longer the Soviet Union, but China's rising power and its expressed desire to undermine America's ability to exercise its role as the world's only superpower. And while Beijing's strategy is played out in any number of ways including providing weapons technology to U.S. adversaries, such as Iran and Iraq the most immediate point of contention is Taiwan.
Unfortunately, despite the moral and strategic imperatives created by Taiwan's democratic transformation and China's emergence as a contentious power, our Taiwan policy has not changed to meet these new circumstances. The Clinton administration for eight years allowed Taiwan's defensive capabilities to deteriorate, while doing virtually nothing to decrease Taiwan's political and diplomatic isolation.
In classic Clintonian fashion, announcements of arms sales hid important truths; that certain items were recycled from previous years, while others would stay in mothballs in the United States, only to be delivered in the event of a crisis half the world away. In general, his administration treated Taiwan, not China, as though it were the cause of instability in the region.
The Clinton team believed that appeasing China in the short term would pay off as China reformed internally and let go of its vision of a "greater China." Following this logic, officials inserted themselves more and more into the cross-straits negotiations, and increasingly tilted toward Beijing's perspective. Yet this sanguine vision of China's future is just one of many possibilities that may play out in China, and most analysts see a nationalistic attachment to Taiwan as a significant feature of Chinese policy for the indefinite future. The United States simply cannot condition its security policy, or its obligations to Taiwan, on China's distant and uncertain democratization. Indeed, containing Chinese adventurism abroad is probably a prerequisite for China tackling the very serious problems it has at home.
All this may now change. The new Bush foreign policy team includes officials who understand that, over the past several years, the United States has emboldened China while weakening U.S. alliances with the democrats in the region. They have watched as China, no longer worried about the huge threat once posed by the Soviets along its borders, openly takes aim at America's leadership position in Asia. And they recognize what a strategic disaster it would be for the United States were Taiwan to be coerced militarily and brought under the control of an aggressive, authoritarian Beijing.
We'll know soon whether President Bush can translate this understanding into action. How he decides to meet the Taiwan challenge will signal both China and America's allies in Asia about whether the new administration is going to keep to its campaign pledge to treat China as a "strategic competitor" or will instead allow the military balance between China and Taiwan to continue to tilt in Beijing's favor.

Gary Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century.


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