Sino-Soviet thaw: don't blame it on Taiwan

By , Robert L. Downen is director, Pacific Basin Studies, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University.

Standard news analyses in recent days concerning preliminary moves by Moscow and Peking toward normalizing their relations suggest that China's initiative stems in part from pique over United States ties to Taiwan. Subscribing to a theory that has lurked around the corridors of the State Department for some time now, these media reports imply that a stubborn refusal by American policymakers to accede to all of Peking's demands concerning Taiwan has resulted in the warming of contacts between the two communist giants.

Before this theory becomes accepted fact, and Taiwan and its American friends are blamed for ''losing China,'' it is important to point out that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, precisely the opposite has occurred.

After spending months trying to demonstrate good faith in its relations with China, including major concessions on the issue of Taiwan, the Reagan administration has discovered the futility of trying to dissuade China from pursuing what it feels serves its own best strategic interests. The June 1981 pledge of US arms sales to China by then Secretary of State Alexander Haig was followed by months of delay in approving military spare parts sales to Taiwan, by a major policy decision against providing more sophisticated jet fighters to Taiwan, and finally by a concession-ridden joint communique with Peking last August that committed Washington to restrict the quantity and quality of future weapons sales to Taiwan.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

All of this occurred within the context of the Taiwan Relations Act which formally binds the US and Taiwan in a continuing special relationship despite diplomatic ties with China.

It is, then, in spitem of recent American policy attitudes toward Taiwan, rather than because of them, that Peking proceeds to exercise its strategic independence. The theory that the US could somehow manipulate Peking's foreign policy or its domestic political developments by modifying its own policy toward Taiwan has been effectively discredited.

Those who argued six months ago that the failure of Washington and Peking to reach agreement on a communique would lead to new signals between the communist neighbors now witness what they most feared, and could not prevent.

The truth of the matter is that China, like any sovereign power, will pursue whatever strategic policy course it feels is in its own best interests at any point in time. Ten years ago, it needed to restore contacts with the US to counterbalance a Soviet threat to its security and to promote internal modernization.

But the US and China never became ''allies''; they are simply two powerful nations that had, and still have, limited coinciding interests. Today Peking needs to upgrade its contacts with the Soviet Union not to protest a challenge to its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan but to serve its contemporary interests in strategic neutrality between the two superpowers.

For China to bolster its claim of rightful leadership in the developing third-world movement, it needs to adopt an equidistant position apart from both the US and Soviet Union. This necessarily involves a ''cooling'' of earlier, feverish commercial and strategic cooperation with the US along with a ''warming'' of frozen relations with the Soviet Union.

At the same time, the high visibility of Peking's new ''arm's-length'' policy toward Washington serves simultaneous purposes of reducing military and political tensions with Moscow, pacifying hard-line factions within China's own political system, and creating potential leverage for dealing with the US on matters of interest in the future.

China's current coolness toward the US is far from terminal, and its more positive attitude toward the Soviet Union does not portend a new monolithic communist alliance against the West. It doesm indicate that Peking intends to play the two superpowers against each other in the hope of gaining important policy concessions from both of them.

No doubt Peking will press the Taiwan issue even harder in coming months, with veiled allusions to adverse consequences for Washington if its demands are not met. But China is not about to sever its important supply line to US markets and technology, and the Reagan administration should refuse to become the pawn in a new strategic chess game.

More concessions on US arms sales to Taiwan will not change or prevent any China policy moves inimical to Western interests, and the belief that they will only ignores the lesson of recent experience.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...