WHAT DOES THE United States plan to do if Taiwan is attacked by China? Washington presumably has an answer to that question. But under its bizarre policy of "strategic ambiguity," the Clinton administration is bending over backward not to say what that answer is.
Is ambiguity strategic? The dictators who rule China obviously don't think so. Throughout their manufactured crisis with Taiwan, they have spoken and acted with crystal clarity. There is no ambiguity in their bombing runs and missile launches off Taiwan's coasts. Nor is there ambiguity in their determination to stop Taiwan -- by violence, if necessary -- from formalizing its sovereignty. "China has never committed itself," warns Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qicheng, "to abandoning the use of force for reunification." Could he be more blunt?
While Washington goes to every length not to rock China's boat, Beijing resorts to tantrums and insults when it doesn't get its way. Its contempt for the opinions of Americans is undisguised -- witness the public massacre at Tiananmen Square, the kidnapping of American human-rights campaigner Harry Wu, the sale of nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan, the export of missiles to Iran, the commercial piracy of US intellectual property, the sneering disdain for the State Department's reports on human rights, and now the near-attacks on Taiwan.
If "strategic ambiguity" and appeasement were supposed to lull the Chinese regime into amiable cooperation, here's a news flash: It didn't work. With bullies -- and Beijing's junta is above all a gang of bullies -- ambiguity and appeasement never do.
This is not the first time the Clinton administration has failed to deter menacing Chinese maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait.
In the autumn of 1994, Chinese troops staged elaborate military exercises 60 miles south of Taiwan's Quemoy Island. From the strategically ambiguous US government, there was no protest. Last summer, ratcheting its aggression up a notch, China for the first time fired missiles into the seas north of Taiwan. Washington issued a mild statement of "concern."
Meeting no resistance, Beijing gave the screw another turn. Before Taiwan's legislative elections last December, China staged a simulated invasion of the island -- large-scale amphibious and airborne assault exercises involving 20,000 troops, 40 warships, and 100 aircraft. Suppose, Chinese officials asked then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye, the simulation turned real -- what would America do? "We don't know and you don't know," Nye coyly replied. Five weeks later, with China's anti-Taiwan rhetoric more hostile than ever, Defense Secretary William Perry repeated the foolish remark.
Not once in 18 months did US official tell China, publicly and explicitly: Leave. Taiwan. Alone. So Taiwan now finds itself on military alert, with Chinese missiles falling just 25 miles off its shores. And still Washington equivocates about what it will do if Taiwan is attacked directly.
The Nixon-Carter "one China" fiction -- the notion that Taiwan and the Chinese mainland are part of a single state with only one lawful government between them -- grows more irrational by the day. It may have had a certain odd logic 25 years ago, when Chiang Kai-shek was still alive and vowing reconquest of the mainland. But Chiang is long dead, and Taiwan's current leader, Lee Teng-hui, works tirelessly to win diplomatic recognition for the independent government in Taipei.
US foreign policy ought to reflect plain facts, and the plain fact today is that there is one China and one Taiwan. What takes place in Taiwan is not China's internal affair, however much Beijing screams otherwise. It is time to drop the pretense.
While China remains a Communist dungeon, Taiwan has become a multiparty democracy. Its presidential election next week will mark the first time in Chinese history that a head of state will be chosen freely by the people. Americans have an abiding interest in defending and promoting democracy, particularly against attacks from unfree Communist regimes.
And therein lies the real source of Beijing's snarling threats.
The prospect of open democracy across the Taiwan Strait horrifies Beijing. "What the mainland authorities fear most is our democratization," Lee Teng-hui perceives. "They dare not democratize. . . . Once this election is completed, the mainland authorities will have a hard time explaining it to the 1.2 billion people on the mainland. These 1.2 billion people will open their eyes and see that on Taiwan, the people are the masters of the nation. And then they will ask why it can't be thus on the Chinese mainland." Exactly.
At the first rattle of China's saber, President Clinton should have declared that the security of Taiwan would be protected by the United States and that China would not be allowed to derail anyone's election. Instead he said nothing. The result is that the people of Taiwan -- free, sovereign, democratic -- are readying bomb shelters and preparing to fight the world's most powerful dictatorship. They deserved better from the United States.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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