As tensions between China and Taiwan escalate, the United States is warning that it would view with "grave concern" a communist attack on the island. But does that mean it would go to war to defend the free-market democracy?
Taipei seems to think it would; Beijing seems to think it would not. But ask the White House and the reply, at least publicly, is less than definite.
"We don't get into hypotheticals," says a senior administration official. "You state a policy and then apply that policy as the real world requires."
If that sounds evasive, it is - deliberately so. There is little doubt that the US would defend Taiwan should China try to regain it by force. But for 20 years, US policy has been to withhold an ironclad guarantee of protection.
Beijing's latest threats, however, are eroding support for that policy and fueling calls for a tougher approach. Lawmakers of both parties and others say it is time to put China on notice that the US will fight if it moves on Taiwan.
"The policy of strategic ambiguity has probably run its course," says Harvey Feldman, a former US ambassador and Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank. "It is time for the US to say very affirmatively that [it] could not sit idly by and watch an armed assault on Taiwan."
Defenders of the policy warn such a declaration would make a clash between the Asia-Pacific nuclear powers inevitable.
"It would bring us to the brink of war with China," says Ronald Montaperto of the Institute of National Strategic Studies, a Pentagon think tank. "We would win that war, but the costs would be high."
Says David Shambaugh of The George Washington University, in Washington: "Ambiguity is a critical element of deterrence, and to keep the mainland guessing about what we would do may well deter them from taking action."
The issue has taken on profound importance amid persisting Chinese threats following the July 9 call from Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui for Beijing to deal with Taipei on a "state to state" basis. Beijing decries that stance as a move toward independence and warns of preparations for a military assault.
The US says it sees no such preparations. Still, US officials and experts worry that tensions will grow as Taiwan girds to elect a successor to President Lee next March.
They expect China to cancel high-level talks on reunification set for October in Taipei and employ more strident intimidation to discourage votes for Lee's hand-picked favorite. In the current atmosphere, they say, any precipitous actions or a miscalculation by either side could ignite a conflict.
The concept of strategic ambiguity underpins the "one China" policy adopted when the United States recognized the communist Beijing regime as China's government and cut diplomatic ties to Taipei in 1979.
Embodied in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the policy accepts a single China but urges a peaceful resolution to the future of Taiwan, the haven of nationalists defeated in 1949 in China's civil war. The policy also provides for sales of US arms to the island for its defense.
By refraining from declaring it will defend Taiwan, the US seeks to advance smooth ties with China, while deterring it from attacking the island by not ruling out US intervention. Denying Taipei a "blank check" on protection, meanwhile, is meant to deter it from declaring independence, a step that would trigger a war with China into which the US would be drawn.
US officials say the policy has for 20 years maintained peace in a region critical to global stability. Not only has it strengthened relations with Asia's strongest power, but bolstered Taiwan's evolution from a military dictatorship to one of only three Asian democracies, they say. It has also become the world's fourth-largest trading economy.
Current US policy
The policy also gives the US flexibility to calibrate responses to Chinese threats, officials say.
Such was the case in August 1998, when President Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the South China Sea as China fired missiles and staged war games in the run-up to Taiwan's first democratic presidential election.
Officials say there is no reason to alter course. Current policy "creates the right incentives for both sides to create a productive relationship rather than slip into tragedy," says the senior administration official.
But critics say the policy, originally designed to enlist China in "containing" the former Soviet Union, is outdated. Having adopted democratic values and institutions the US espouses, Taiwan deserves its unstinting protection, they say.
More importantly, they charge that in seeking better ties with Beijing, Mr. Clinton has tilted against Taiwan.
They point to his endorsement during his China visit last year of Beijing's three "noes" on Taiwan: no independence, no two Chinas, and no admission for Taiwan to international organizations. Although this had been US policy, critics say Clinton's public reiteration of it on Chinese communist soil sent a clear signal of weakened support for Taiwan.
As a result, critics say, the president undermined the deterrent effect of strategic ambiguity and encouraged the communist regime's belief that it can intimidate and attack the island without US intervention.
"It has therefore become essential that the United States make every effort to deter any form of Chinese intimidation of [Taiwan] and declare unambiguously that it will come to Taiwan's defense in the event of an attack or a blockade," said a statement last month by 23 conservatives, including former senior officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Although many experts and lawmakers insist the Taiwan Relations Act mandates that the US defend Taiwan, legislation has been introduced in the US House and Senate to remove any ambiguity.
Backed by Democrats and Republicans, the House bill also calls for expanding US security assistance to the island, including establishing a hotline between the American and Taiwanese militaries.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society