Chapter 4: What Principles Should Guide U.S. Foreign Policy Toward China?

Chapter 4 Preface


One of the most sensitive issues in U.S.-China relations is the status of Taiwan. Officially, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers this island off the southeastern coast of the mainland part of its territory. However, Taiwan maintains its own government and enjoys extensive economic relations with the United States.

The origins of Taiwan’s ambiguous status can be traced to the end of World War II, when a civil war between China’s two dominant political parties came to a head. The nationalist Kuomintang party, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong, had fought each other since the 1920s. By 1949, the Kuomintang had been forced to flee to Taiwan. However, they still claimed to be the rightful rulers of China. Meanwhile, on October 1 of that year, Mao proclaimed the Communist revolution successful, and the People’s Republic of China was born.

All this occurred at the dawn of the West’s cold war with the Soviet Union. The United States, opposed to the spread of communism, initially refused to recognize the PRC, and instead made promises to support the exiled government on Taiwan. However, by the start of the 1970s, it was apparent that the PRC was firmly in power and that the leaders on Taiwan had little influence in mainland China. Over the objections of the United States, the United Nations admitted the PRC and revoked Taiwan’s membership.

The United States now recognizes the Communist government in Beijing as the legitimate ruler of China. Yet U.S. leaders are reluctant to completely abandon ties with the government on Taiwan. Thus, ever since President Richard Nixon made the first official U.S. visit to the PRC in 1972, U.S. presidents have tried to maintain a delicate balance, helping to strengthen Taiwan economically and militarily without offending the PRC.

The United States Should Defend Taiwan Against China

In the following viewpoint, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, editors of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, argue that the United States should pledge to defend Taiwan in the event the People’s Republic of China (PRC) attempts to invade or otherwise threaten Taiwan. Current U.S. policy on Taiwan is ambiguous, according to the authors: U.S. leaders have repeatedly implied that they would use force to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression, but they have also discouraged Taiwan from openly declaring independence from mainland China. Kristol and Kagan believe this ambiguity could lead to war if Chinese leaders are not convinced of America’s commitment to Taiwan. Writing a few months prior to the 2000 presidential primaries, Kristol and Kagan call on the Republican presidential candidates to make a clear promise to defend Taiwan.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. In the authors’ opinion, what “simple reality” should be the basis for American policy toward Taiwan?

2. What are the proposed provisions of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, according to Kristol and Kagan?

Taiwan’s President Li Teng-hui sent the American foreign policy establishment into a nervous frenzy [in July 1999] when he declared that Taiwan would henceforth negotiate with China as one state to another. China experts are working overtime on their op-eds chastising Taiwan for its provocative action. And the Clinton administration has already made known its displeasure with Li’s statements, denouncing them as unhelpful and reiterating the administration’s own agreement with Beijing’s one-China policy. Meanwhile, Beijing went nuclear, literally. In a document charmingly entitled “Facts Speak Louder Than Words and Lies Will Collapse on Themselves,” Beijing informed the world of what the Cox committee and other investigations had already revealed: that it has a neutron bomb, just perfect for dropping on a nearby island that China would like to occupy. This threat will no doubt cause even more anxiety among American China hands, who will blame President Li for increasing the danger of another crisis in the Taiwan Straits.

Everyone should calm down. By carefully stripping away the absurd fictions of the “one-China” policy, President Li is actually doing all concerned a big favor. After all, it is true that “facts speak louder than words.” The fact is that Taiwan is and has been a sovereign state for decades, with its own government, its own army, its own flag, its own flourishing economy, and full possession of its territory. Since the early 1990s, moreover, Taiwan has been a democracy, and nothing could be clearer than that the Taiwanese people want to remain separate from mainland China as long as that territory is ruled by a dictatorship. Until there can be one democratic China, they insist, there must be two Chinas.

Beyond the Shanghai Communique
These facts are, of course, inconvenient for the Clinton administration, which has adhered slavishly to the fiction of “one China” embodied in over a quarter-century’s worth of Sino-American agreements. Beginning with the Shanghai Communique of 1972, the United States declared its understanding that both sides of the China-Taiwan dispute agreed that there was but one China. At the time of the Shanghai Communique, this was true in an odd sort of way. Both the Communist government of Beijing and the authoritarian government of Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang agreed that there was one China, and they both insisted it was theirs. The United States used this cute “one-China” formulation as a way of avoiding the issue. Anyway, the Cold War was on, and U.S. officials believed they needed China’s help in containing the Soviet Union. If the price was a certain ambiguity and even some deception on the subject of Taiwan, so be it.

Twenty-seven years later, however, the world is a very different place. The people of Taiwan, now able to express their will electorally, have declared that they do not want to rule the mainland, and they do not want the mainland to rule them. There are two Chinas, not one. This puts an end to the smoke-and-mirrors game of the Shanghai Communique. The Clinton administration’s spokesmen can say “one China” till they’re blue in the face, but, to quote the Chinese government again, “lies will collapse on themselves.” And then, of course, there is that other small difference between now and 1972: The Cold War is over. The Soviet Union is gone, and the biggest challenge to American interests in the world today comes from Beijing, not Moscow. With that rather large shift in global strategic realities, the need for ambiguity on Taiwan has disappeared.

The Dangers of Ambiguity
Indeed, ambiguity under the...

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The United States Should Not Defend Taiwan Against China

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. In the following viewpoint, he maintains that Americans do not want to go to war with China in order to defend Taiwan. Carpenter argues that such a conflict would be disastrous, especially considering that China is a nuclear power. On the other hand, he also believes that a successful Chinese attack on Taiwan would seriously damage U.S. interests in the Pacific region. Carpenter suggests that a better way for the United States to ensure Taiwan’s security would be to sell better weapons to Taiwan, including submarines and antiballistic missiles. This would discourage China’s willingness to initiate a conflict with Taiwan while also reducing the need for America to become militarily involved in the region.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. In the author’s opinion, how did Bill Clinton change U.S. policy on Taiwan when he visited China in June 1998?

2. What weapons systems does the author say the United States has already sold to Taiwan, and what systems does he believe should be made available to Taiwan in the future?

An especially controversial aspect of President Clinton’s June 1998 trip to China was his statement, following meetings with Chinese president Jiang Zemin, that “we don’t support independence for Taiwan, or two Chinas, or one Taiwan, one China. And we don’t believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement.” Administration officials subsequently insisted that U.S. policy had not changed, but those assurances were greeted with widespread disbelief in both the United States and Taiwan. That skepticism is understandable. Although Clinton stopped short of accepting Beijing’s position that Taiwan is nothing more than a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the opposition not only to Taiwanese independence but to Taiwan’s hopes for lesser forms of international recognition confirmed a major change in Washington’s position.

Previous U.S. policy was encapsulated in the deliberately ambiguous language of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué at the end of President Richard Nixon’s historic journey to China: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

Clinton’s statement drew condemnation from the Senate GOP leadership and from sources as politically diverse as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The Post argued that the president had significantly reduced Taiwan’s bargaining power in any cross-straits negotiations and questioned the propriety of the United States’ ruling out “independence or any other option the Taiwanese people might choose.” The Journal was more caustic, contending that Jiang “got his number one priority, Mr. Clinton carving the next slice of salami toward the Chinese goal of getting the U.S. to coerce Taiwan to join China, or alternatively, to stand aside while China invades.” And Parris Chang, a member of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan and the head of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party’s mission in the United States, bitterly accused Clinton of “selling out” Tai- wan.

Although concern about the president’s comments is justified, such criticisms misidentify the primary danger arising from Washington’s policy shift. The Journal’s interpretation is certainly overstated; Clinton explicitly reiterated those portions of the Shanghai Communiqué and other U.S. policy statements that emphasize America’s insistence that the Taiwan issue be settled peacefully. There is little evidence that Washington will pressure Taiwan to accept Beijing’s rule, and the Taiwanese would ferociously resist such pressure in any case. Nor is it likely that the United States would remain aloof if the PRC attacked Taiwan.

The real problem is that Clinton’s policy has a built-in, extremely dangerous contradiction. His statements in Shanghai indicate that the United States now considers Taiwanese independence an illegitimate option. That is a far cry from merely acknowledging that most Taiwanese and mainland Chinese endorse the theoretical goal of “one China.” The implications of that change in language go far beyond the escalation of U.S. opposition to Taipei’s bid to join the United Nations and other international bodies.

More tangibly, Clinton’s policy shift presages a reduction and eventual elimination of arms sales to Taiwan—as already suggested by several East Asia experts. Indeed, there are persistent news reports in the East Asian press that Chinese leaders received “private pledges” by “senior U.S. officials” to cut or downgrade arms exports to Taiwan. That is not a trivial matter, for a cutoff of arms sales could...

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The United States Should End Free Trade with China

Since the late 1980s, China has been seeking admission into the World Trade Organization (WTO). China’s entry into the WTO would mean that the United States would be obligated to engage in free trade with China and grant it permanent Normal Trade Relations status. In the following viewpoint, William R. Hawkins maintains that China should not be admitted to the WTO. The U.S. trade deficit with China, he maintains, shows that the Chinese benefit from free trade with the United States much more than Americans do. Moreover, he warns that China is using the wealth generated from free trade with the United Sates to upgrade its military, thus threatening U.S. interests in the Pacific region. William R. Hawkins is a visiting fellow at...

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The United States Should Not End Free Trade with China

In the following viewpoint, Jerry J. Jasinowski argues that free trade with China benefits the United States. Free access to the 1.2 billion potential consumers in China helps U.S. businesses compete internationally, he maintains. In addition, U.S. economic engagement with China exposes the Chinese to American values such as free competition. If the Chinese embrace the value of freedom in trade and business competition, then freedom in other areas, such as politics and religion, will more easily follow. Jasinowski is president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. How many dollars’ worth of commercial goods does the United States sell to China...

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The United States Should Pressure China to Adopt Democratic Reforms

In the following viewpoint, Robert W. Tracinski, editor of the Intellectual Activist, criticizes U.S. foreign policy toward China under President Bill Clinton. Tracinski claims that Clinton’s policy has been based entirely on appeasing China by giving it trade benefits and reducing criticism of China’s human rights abuses. This strategy, writes Tracinski, is based on the idea that by engaging China economically and politically, the United States will gain more influence with Chinese leaders. However, Tracinski believes this approach is ineffective and inexcusable given the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and its overt hostility toward the United States.

As you read, consider the following...

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The United States Should Not Try to Control China

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and the author of Blowback: The Costs of the American Empire. In the following viewpoint, he argues that China has made considerable economic and political progress since it first became communist in 1949. In his view, many U.S. criticisms of China—on issues such as human rights or nuclear proliferation—are unjustified or exaggerated. Johnson maintains that much of the tension in U.S.-China relations is due not to China’s actions, but rather to Americans’ unease with China’s emergence as a great power. Johnson warns that, to avoid conflict with China, U.S. leaders will have to accept that China is unwilling to let the United States be the dominant...

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Chapter 4 Periodical Bibliography


The following articles have been selected to supplement the diverse views presented in this chapter. Addresses are provided for periodicals not indexed in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the Alternative Press Index, the Social Sciences Index, or the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books.

Jodie T. Allen. “China’s in the House,” U.S. News & World Report, June 5, 2000.

Michael Barone. “China’s Strait Flush,” U.S. News & World Report, September 6, 1999.

Jagdish Bhagwati and Christopher Lingle. “Should China Be Allowed to Join the World Trade Organization?” Insight on the News, December 1, 1997. Available from 3600...

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