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Taiwan Confrontation Background

A common theme in the developments following the replacement of Clinton by Bush was the debate over the fundamental direction of America's policy towards China. The engagement policy of the Clinton Administration followed the general direction charted by the executive branch since the Nixon Administration. Over time the rationale for engagement has shifted from a strategic partnership to contain the Soviet Union to one of encouraging Chinese support for American security policies in areas such as nonproliferation, while simultaneously encouraging the restructuring of Chinese domestic institutions towards the democratic and market-oriented New World Order norms. Chinese cooperation with the Clinton Administration's security agenda was substantial though far from complete. And domestic Chinese structural reforms, though far from meeting prevailing global standards, substantially confirmed the charges by the Gang of Four that Deng Xiaoping was a "capitalist roader" who would move China away from the command economy Soviet model.

These developments notwithstanding, the American critics of engagement enjoyed growing success in advancing their case for abandoning engagement and returning to some version of the containment policy that prevailed before Nixon went to China in 1972. While the critics of engagement consistently failed in their efforts to deny China the benefits of Normal Trade Relations [the new less-controversial name for Most Favored Nation status], the sources of discontent with engagement are deep, diverse, and span the political spectrum. Political liberals and their domestic constituencies are troubled by China's human rights record, and the impact of cheap Chinese imports on the American workforce. Political conservatives and their domestic constituencies are animated by traditional friendship with Taiwan and hostility towards the Communist mainland, concerns over Chinese repression of religious practice, the diverse opportunities to undermine the Clinton presidency through scandal-mongering, and the felt need to identify a main adversary to replace the Soviet Union. Counterveiling constituencies on the specific issues that animate the critics of engagement are notably scarce -- business community support for engagement has largely remained decoupled from other controversies which have thus far left the centerpiece of engagment -- Normal Trade Relations -- unscathed.

The sources of the shifting American mood towards China are both structural and incidental. From Nixon through Reagan the case for engagement was founded in the apparent and immediate national security objectives of ending the Vietnam War and containing the Soviet Union. Clinton's rather more attenuated case for engagement rests largely on the premise that over time the structural transformation of China will lead to integration into the New World Order, and elimination of the material basis for future military conflict. While the present benefits of Sino-American security cooperation and trade are not insubstantial, the shift of the core payoff of engagement from present to future tense has substantially enlarged the structural opportunities for the critics of engagement.

These critics have risen to these structural opportunities through a series of incidents in recent years, which if not inspired by Taiwan have certainly advanced the cause of one view of Taiwan's interests. It is difficult to gauge, or even detect, the direct hand of Taiwan itself in promoting the various China scandals that enthralled Washington in closing years of the Clinton Presidency, but it is difficult to ignore the role of the traditional friends of Taiwan in advancing these perception management exercises. The succession of scandals -- campaign finance, rockets, and nuclear weapons -- has hastened a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, with "Red China" and "CHICOM" rapidly returning as normal terms of discourse.

Taiwan is currently China's fifth-biggest trading partner. Taiwanese investment in Southern China has financed an unprecedented boom, providing thousands of jobs, job training, and exposure to new technology. The present crisis comes at a difficult time for China's stalling economy, with the risk of political instability in China should its economy continue to drift and if unemployment increase. But China has gone to war before, despite catastrophic consequences for the economy. And Chinese conservatives might try to hold the country together by whipping up nationalist fervor over Taiwan.

China has a longstanding position that Taiwan is an internal matter, that they want to see it resolved peacefully, but they don't rule out the use of force. China will not compromise on the issue of eventual reunification. China's leaders are disinclined to compromise on what they regard as core foreign and national security issues. The legitimacy of the leadership depends on their ability to link China's domestic and foreign policies of building a rich country that can redress the perceived abuses of the past and form a basis for China as a global power. The cultivation of nationalism makes it difficult for Beijing to compromise on important foreign policy issues. The leadership cannot afford to appear to compromise on core issues that involve sovereignty or national prerogative, such as relations with Taiwan. China is concerned that Taiwan's growing autonomy would evolve into an unsurmountable obstacle to reunification. In the longer run, this would establish an unsettling precedent for greater autonomy, if not outright independence, for other regions of mainland China, such as Tibet. Mindful of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Chinese leadership cannot regard such scenarios as entirely theoretical.

The Chinese people widely supported Beijing's March 1996 exercises and missile tests in the Taiwan Strait, despite the generally negative impact on Beijing's relations in the region and with the United States. The leadership gained political credit for resolute action in defense of China's sovereignty and national integrity.

Both China and Taiwan wish to avoid military conflict. Beijing's March 1996 exercises and missile tests in the Taiwan Strait aimed to limit Taiwan's behavior, not to attack Taiwan or any of the islands under its control. Understanding the likely course of events in the present crisis requires some understanding of the basic intentions of the relevant actors. On the eve of a crisis of uncertain proportions, these are almost unknowable, just as such intentions remain the fodder for historical controvery long after the fact [Chou En-lai famously observed of the significance of the French Revolution: "It is too soon to tell"].

China has historically used military confrontations as a means of redefining the extent of some great power's commitment to a regional actor. The two Taiwan crises of the 1950s were in no small measure intended to test the willingness of the Soviet Union to come to the aid of China in a confrontation with the United States. And the punitive expedition against Vietnam in 1979 was intended to demonstrate the limits of Soviet support for that country. In all these instances, the Soviet Union was weighed in the balance and found wanting.

American crisis response behaviour is equally stylized, though with American characteristics. Since the end of the Second World War, two of America's four major wars have resulted from ambiguities in pre-war commitments -- in both the Korean War in 1950 and the Gulf War in 1990 the United States "discovered" vital security interests once the war was in progress that had been denied prior to the fact.

The challenge for both Taiwan and China is to explore American commitment and risk aversion in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan will seek more explict support for moving beyond the constraints of "One China" -- and China will seek to demonstrate that Taiwan cannot hope for such support. Chinese initiatives beyond diplomacy will seek to demonstrate the limits to Taiwan's freedom of action and that these limits are determined by China not Taiwan, while avoiding provocations that would lead to direct American involvement. China's exploration of American ambiguity will seek to demonstrate that the threshold for American intervention is really rather high, and that little short of existential threats to Taiwan would provoke direct American response. Taiwan's exploration of American ambiguity will seek to demonstrate that the American threshold for response is rather lower than might have been imagined, and that it extends to not merely confirming the status quo but to defending Taiwan's status as defined by Taiwan.

The fact is that the United States is not a unitary actor, but rather a complex system with emergent properties. Although participants in the policy process surely have individual views of the matter, the United States Government as a corporate entity almost certainly cannot know its threshold for intervention any precision prior to the actual fact, as was demonstrated in Korea and the Gulf War. The danger is that the American threshold for intervention is probably higher than might be hoped in Taiwan, but rather lower than might be expected in China, and that a process of escalation once begun may have consequences unintended by and harmful to all the parties to the process.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:35:47 Zulu