WASHINGTON — China's hard-liners can claim vindication in congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR). Despite escalating threats against Taiwan (and the United States), continued proliferation of prohibited technology to rogue states, and intensified political and religious repression of its people, the international community has welcomed China as a "normal" trading partner.
With the House vote behind it and Senate approval assured, Beijing is now free to confront the fact that on Taiwan itself, the irresistible force has met the immovable object: Chen Shui-bian, its bte noire, assumed the presidency on May 20 without yielding to Beijing's ultimatum that he accept the "one China" principle conceding mainland sovereignty over the island. To do so, Chen said, would have made him "unfit" to lead Taiwan, though he did offer other concessions to Beijing.
Now it is China's move; having failed again to rattle Taiwan's leaders or cow its voters, it may feel compelled to act on its threats.
The Clinton administration, which had pressured Chen not to do or say anything to provoke China, also cautioned Beijing against riling Congress before the vote on PNTR. Willing to bide its time during that delicate period, Beijing must understand that American opposition to the use of force against Taiwan isn't a transitory policy to suit legislative politics, but a bedrock principle of Sino-American relations.
The administration should jump at recent suggestions that Beijing and Taipei might now welcome US mediation in the conflict. Despite past reluctance to play that role, Washington should seize the opportunity to clarify its dangerously contradictory policies on the China-Taiwan issue. Antagonizing one or both of the parties holds less risk than allowing the situation to drift toward war.
Washington has good reason to resist interposing itself between Beijing and Taipei: Their positions are fundamentally irreconcilable. China wants Taiwan to accept Communist rule, supposedly watered-down under a "one country, two systems approach"; Taiwan's government and people, having discarded the old Kuomintang dictatorship, will not agree to surrender any part of their hard-won democracy.
China has painted itself into a corner with its growing list of pretexts to attack Taiwan. But outmoded and counterproductive American policies have contributed to the inexorable momentum toward confrontation.
Washington originally left it to the parties to determine what "one China" means as long as it is decided by peaceful means. But successive administrations have gradually accepted Beijing's view that the People's Republic of China is the one China, and that Taiwan deserves no separate international space.
Paradoxically, even as Taipei followed American advice and democratized its regime, Washington's policy has shifted from studied neutrality to a decidedly pro-China tilt. Where we once encouraged a peaceful "resolution," we now prejudge the negotiations and approve peaceful "reunification."
At the same time, the US adheres to the concept of "strategic ambiguity," even though its underlying premise has eroded. The original idea was that by avoiding a clear commitment to Taiwan's defense - saying "it would depend on the circumstances" - Washington discouraged adventurism on either side of the Taiwan strait: Beijing would avoid action that might invite an American response, and Taipei would not utter words that could antagonize China. But the doctrine of deliberate vagueness eventually backfired as each side probed the limits of tolerable behavior.
Chen has clearly tried to break the cycle by abandoning many of the positions of his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and seeking unconditional cross-strait dialogue. But China has rejected his peace overtures and moved in the opposite direction, escalating its military threats and undermining the premise of the United States' recognition of the People's Republic of China: No use of force against Taiwan.
With little room to maneuver at this late date in contemporary China-US relations, Washington could still calm the situation by explicitly reframing the core positions of American policy:
1. The United States will not recognize a formal declaration of Taiwan's independence and will discourage other nations from doing so. A declaration lacking international acceptance would be a symbolic but legally meaningless gesture, neither requiring nor justifying China's military response.
2. A Chinese military move against Taiwan, for any reason short of a Taiwanese attack on the mainland, would bring an immediate American military, economic, and diplomatic response, including recognition of Taiwan's independence (worsening Sino-US diplomatic relations already jeopardized by any military confrontation).
3. Whether Taiwan ultimately joins with the mainland in some form must be arranged through peaceful, uncoerced negotiations and the democratic decision of the government and people of Taiwan.
Only strategic and moral clarity will ensure stability across the Taiwan Strait and peace in the region, and only the United States can provide that clarity.
*Joseph A. Bosco teaches in the Asian studies program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society