- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006


By Ted Galen Carpenter, Palgrave Macmillan, $26.95, 224 pages

Ted Galen Carpenter’s conclusions are less apocalyptic than the title “America’s Coming War with China” would imply. But the situation is serious. As the Taiwanese legislature’s actions to dissolve the largely symbolic National Unification Council last month and Beijing’s stern rejoinder show, tension in the Strait is never allayed, only dormant. To avoid conflict, Mr. Carpenter argues: “Washington badly needs to clarify its Taiwan policy… Unfortunately, time is running out for them to do so.”

To drive home the gravity of the situation, Mr. Carpenter opens his work with a hypothetical showdown between the United States and China, which has overtones of the averted Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996.

Properly appreciating the historical context of the Taiwan issue is a prerequisite to understanding the conflict. In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung forced the beleaguered President Chiang Kai-shek and his ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) to take refuge on Taiwan.

Believing that a Communist China was not in U.S. interests, policy-makers in Washington in the 1950s decided to support the KMT and Chiang’s plan to use Taiwan as a staging ground from which he would return the KMT to power in China. An independent Taiwan, in the eyes of China and the CCP, will always represent a revolution unfinished.

Washingtonofficially shifted diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, and gave Beijing assurances in a 1982 communique that the United States would not interfere in internal Chinese affairs — a clear reference to Taiwan. The diplomatic shift was countervailed by the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, an ambiguously worded law that allowed the United States to sell “defensive weapons” to Taiwan as well as treat Taiwan as a sovereign nation. The actions “would institutionalize a tension — if not an outright contradiction — in U.S. policy toward Taiwan and China.”

The TRA and 20 subsequent years of U.S. policy are mired in “strategic ambiguity,” a phrase best defined by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph P. Nye during a 1995 visit to China as “We don’t know and you don’t know.” While this keeps both sides guessing, the lack of a clear policy leads to “miscalculation” and “manipulation” and, Mr. Carpenter believes, an inclination in Taipei to lead Washington, unwittingly, down paths that the United States should be reluctant to tread.

According to Mr. Carpenter, the fundamental flaw with all U.S. policy in the Strait — both the “irresponsible” neoconservative support for Taiwan democracy at all costs and the more conciliatory accommodationist policy bargain — is the reliance on deterrence. Deterrence worked against the former Soviet Union in Northern Asia and Western Europe only because U.S. strategic interests in those areas far outweighed Soviet interests. The reverse is true of Taiwan. The United States would be unable or unwilling to make good on any military assurances given to Taiwan.

Mr. Carpenter’s solution is U.S. disengagement from Taiwan. Washington should completely negate the TRA and have no official policy on the Taiwan issue — a “difficult” sell, to put it mildly. To help the island maintain its current state of de facto independence, Washington would lift all restrictions on arms sales to Taiwan. This, in Mr Carpenter’s view, would extricate both sides from the current political knot.

China currently lacks the military might to retake Taiwan by force, and continued arms sales to Taiwan would prohibit an invasion in the near future. Additionally, China would have to deal directly with Taipei instead of looking to Washington to keep the island’s behavior in check.

Although Mr. Carpenter concludes that Washington needs to make a “firm” commitment not to engage in an armed conflict between China and Taiwan, he observes that “Beijing would have to realize that, given political realities in the United States, horrendous diplomatic repercussions and economic sanctions would certainly occur in response to an attack on Taiwan.”

The repercussions would be greater than that, however. Given the importance the Bush administration has placed on supporting democracy around the world, clearly manifest in the huge commitment in Iraq, it seems unreasonable to expect that the administration would support actions interpreted as abandoning a vibrant democracy to a totalitarian regime.

On the other hand, President Bush did adopt the one-China policy after a rather strident endorsement of Taiwan’s right to independence in 2001.

Mr. Carpenter’s promising policy recommendation needs a more thorough dissection, but the book otherwise does a good job explaining policy toward China in the context of Chinese and American domestic politics.

G. Russ McCracken Jr. is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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