Two and a half years ago China and the United States stumbled into a military confrontation that neither had sought or anticipated. The March 1996 face-off between U.S. aircraft carriers and Chinese warships and land-based missiles seems in retrospect, however, to have had some salutary effects. The crisis reminded both countries of the stake each has in successful management of relations with the other and of the continuing centrality of Taiwan's status to this task.

Since then, the two governments have worked hard to establish a respectful dialogue about a range of bilateral and international issues. Summits and other high-level meetings are once again a regular feature of Sino-American diplomacy, and there have been no further military confrontations in the Taiwan area. Last fall, when he met with his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, President Bill Clinton urged the earliest possible resumption of dialogue between Beijing and Taipei. Recently, after three years of posturing to blame each other for the rupture in dialogue, Beijing and Taipei began to trade concrete proposals about how to meet and what issues to take up when they do.

Until President Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States in June 1995, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland had been moving toward mutual accommodation through informal economic and cultural exchanges and dialogue. On both sides of the strait there was a consensus on the ideal of "one China" and the imperative of realizing it through some form of reunification. This consensus, endorsed by the United States, kept the peace and fostered an atmosphere conducive to negotiation. The consensus has now collapsed. Taiwan seems convinced it can campaign for independence with the military backing of the United States. If war is to be prevented, Washington must convince Taipei as well as Beijing that it is time for them to work out a mutually acceptable relationship, and that no unilateral change in the status quo—precipitated by either side—is acceptable.


President Clinton's skillfully executed decision to deploy two aircraft carriers was aimed at reassuring the United States' Asian friends and allies that it remains committed to maintaining peace. It underscored the U.S. interest in resolving the Taiwan question by peaceful rather than violent means. The deployment achieved both objectives. The major lesson most American observers, including most members of Congress, have drawn from the crisis is, however, that the prospect of U.S. military intervention can deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Beijing reached a different conclusion. China's leaders have always said they would go to war to prevent the permanent division of China. They now believe that they are likely to have to do so. China's armed forces have begun a decade-long effort to acquire the capabilities and do the planning required to have a serious chance of overwhelming Taiwan's formidable defenses. If a demonstrated ability to do this proves insufficient to dissuade Taiwan from separation, China's armed forces expect to receive an order to invade the island, notwithstanding the risk of conflict with the United States.

In Taiwan, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) shows of force that followed Lee's visit to the United States stimulated fear and dislike of the PRC and accelerated the demise of popular support for reunification. As military tensions rose, however, many on the island began to reconsider how to accommodate mainland China. The sudden arrival of U.S. aircraft carriers during the sixth round of PLA maneuvers halted any further consideration of conciliatory moves toward Beijing. It convinced the leaders of Taiwan's ruling and opposition parties that they could count on U.S. intervention to shield them from PRC military threats. The Clinton administration has attempted to shake this conviction through quiet dialogue with Taipei, but Taiwanese leaders put much more credence in the unqualified public statements of support they hear from majorities in both houses of Congress. Taiwan's leaders make no secret of their belief that, whatever the cause of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, congressional pressure would quickly overwhelm a reluctant administration.

Taiwanese politicians have concluded that they have wide latitude to reject reunification and to maneuver the island toward independence. Some, including President Lee and Hsu Hsin-liang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, define their objective as international acceptance of the "Republic of China," now reduced in territory to Taiwan and a few offshore islands, as a sovereign state distinct from the PRC. Lee's Kuomintang (KMT) still pays lip service to reunification, saying that it might be considered when and if the Chinese mainland democratizes; Hsu's DPP flatly opposes reunification under any circumstances. Other DPP leaders, including Chen Shui-bian, the popular mayor of Taipei, whom many see as Taiwan's next president, favor a plebiscite to approve a "Republic of Taiwan."


Until recently, governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait embraced the concept of "one China" (although they disagreed, of course, on which was the legitimate regime). The United States has long hoped that negotiations could settle Taiwan's relationship with the rest of China and end the Chinese civil war. Not until the United States terminated its 1954 defense treaty and cut its official ties with Taipei in January 1979 did the PRC officially admit the possibility of peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. China's new leader, Deng Xiaoping, then abandoned three decades of Maoist rhetoric about the "liberation" of Taiwan and proposed a version of his "one China, two systems" approach, to be agreed upon in negotiations between Beijing and Taipei.

From June 1950 till December 1978 U.S. forces protected Taiwan from forcible reunification. The United States was able to end this military confrontation with the prc when it persuaded Beijing that, given the cross-strait consensus on the principle of "one China," negotiations could peacefully end the division of China. After 1979, the U.S. guarantee of peaceful settlement and continued arms sales under the Taiwan Relations Act bolstered Taipei's confidence in negotiations. As U.S.-China ties strengthened, Beijing grew more confident that it could solve the Taiwan issue in talks with Taipei.

During the 1980s, the PLA withdrew most of its forces and installations from areas across the strait from Taiwan. Beijing and Taipei turned from military confrontation to the cautious promotion of economic interdependence and human contacts. Taipei consistently rejected Beijing's proposals for the formal relaxation of barriers to direct trade, communications, and travel, but it acquiesced in a broad de facto expansion of trade and investment ties. In 1979, Taiwan and the mainland had no economic links. By 1997, cross-strait trade had reached about $26.5 billion a year, and some 35,000 Taiwanese companies had invested $30 billion in the PRC. Nearly 1.5 million visits—the vast majority of them from Taiwan to the Chinese mainland—were being made each year.

The steady relaxation of tensions culminated in a 1993 meeting in Singapore between senior, authorized (but nominally unofficial) emissaries. They agreed on minor steps to facilitate the exchange of mail and trade across the strait. Beijing and Taipei also established a regular channel of communication between "nongovernmental" organizations to handle discussions with the other. Beijing went to Singapore to explore ways of realizing the principle of "one China" consistent with its concept of "one country, two systems." Taipei entered the Singapore talks under its Guidelines for National Unification. These envisioned talks on private sector exchanges that would gradually lead to high-level visits and eventually to formal negotiations. The two sides agreed to disagree on what the principle of "one China" might mean in practice and planned further talks. A round was scheduled for June 1995 but canceled after Lee Teng-hui's speech at Cornell.

Lee's travels and speech were aimed at securing his reelection in Taiwan's 1996 presidential elections. The Chinese mainlander-dominated KMT had long been the standard-bearer of Chinese nationalism on the island. During much of its rule in Taiwan, the KMT brutally suppressed efforts by Taiwan's native Chinese majority to play a significant role in governing the island or to question the KMT's vision of reunifying China under Chiang Kai-shek. The first Taiwanese to head the KMT, Lee sought to reposition the party to identify it with Taiwanese aspirations for freedom from further rule by mainlanders, whether on the island or in Beijing. As he moved toward the center of Taiwan's democratizing politics, Lee embraced much of the separatist program of his Taiwanese nationalist opposition.

Lee's statements, Beijing's military riposte, and Washington's reaction accelerated the evolution in Taiwan's posture. Lee now asserts that the Republic of China, first established in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen, is still a sovereign independent nation whose territory is now limited to Taiwan and its offshore islands, and entitled to international recognition as such. Since Taiwan is already independent from the prc under the name of the "Republic of China," Lee argues, there is no need to declare independence under another name such as the "Republic of Taiwan." Lee's position neatly combines the thesis that there are two Chinese states with the cause of Taiwanese independence. It has enabled his KMT to reach agreement on cross-strait relations with the mainstream of the DPP. This agreement repudiates the previous cross-strait consensus on "one China." In seeking to square their new position with "one China," KMT spokesmen now claim that the "China" of which Taiwan is a part is a historical or cultural zone rather than a nation-state.

Taiwan's efforts to redefine itself as a sovereign nation-state distinct from the PRC have been backed by well-financed "pragmatic diplomacy" aimed at changing the international context of the Taiwan question and raising the island's profile. Taipei has used economic grants to persuade developing countries to recognize it as a state separate from the PRC and to support its campaign to gain a seat at the United Nations and other international organizations. This has set off a diplomatic bidding war in Africa, with some countries shifting relations back and forth between Beijing and Taipei to raise revenue from both sides.

Ironically, Taipei's new position has halted the progress it had been making toward membership in more international organizations. As a practical matter, Taipei cannot join such organizations unless Beijing agrees. Beijing was willing to compromise on this issue when Taipei's membership was consistent with the principle of "one China." Taipei's new insistence on independence has made additional compromises unacceptable to Beijing.


Besides a flag and other symbols of nationhood, it is difficult to see what Taiwan would gain from formal separation from China. Nor, truth be told, would Beijing gain much from reunification. Mainland China is already benefiting from Taiwan's economic know-how and financial resources, and Taipei no longer poses a credible threat to the legitimacy of the government in Beijing. The PRC is now almost universally recognized as the government of China, including Taiwan.

Beijing's opening offer for negotiations with Taipei posits an essentially symbolic reunification rather than effective incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC. Jiang Zemin's January 30, 1995, "eight-point proposal" goes well beyond the version of "one country, two systems" applied to Hong Kong. It abjures any intention to alter Taiwan's political, economic, or social systems. It renounces Beijing's right to participate in governing Taiwan or to station troops on the island and envisages Taiwan's retention of its own armed forces. Jiang's proposal acknowledges that it is desirable for Taiwan to continue to participate, on an agreed-upon basis, in international organizations as a Chinese society distinct from those in Hong Kong, Macao, or the mainland.

Even though it could undoubtedly negotiate improvements in this formula, Taipei is reluctant to enter a serious dialogue with Beijing on this basis. Taiwan's democratic politics have produced no consensus on what sort of long-term relationship, if any, Taiwan should have with the rest of China. Many in Taiwan accept Lee's redefinition of the status quo and see no reason to return to a view of the status quo as "one China, even if not now." In short, Taiwan's domestic politics now makes it difficult for its leaders to address Beijing's reunification agenda, even if they wanted to.

Taiwan's political establishment does not want to appear to be against talks across the strait because that would not sit well with the United States or Japan. The problem is that Taiwanese public opinion will only permit talks with Beijing about how to preserve and enhance Taiwan's separation from China. Taiwan's leaders know that Beijing cannot accept such a premise for talks.


For the first time since the 1950s, there is a real danger that decisions in Taipei, not just Beijing, could ignite a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. The United States, as well as both Chinese parties, would be a loser in any such conflict, whether American forces joined it or not. U.S. policy can no longer hope to deter war exclusively by keeping Beijing at bay. The United States must also discourage decisions and actions by Taipei that could leave Beijing with little choice but to react militarily. But such a policy cannot be implemented if Congress and the administration remain at odds.

The Clinton administration has yet to do much to educate Congress on the dangers that recent developments in Taiwan and on the mainland pose to peace. A serious effort to forge a national consensus on policy toward China, including Taiwan, is overdue. The starting point must be a recognition that attempts by either party to impose a solution on the other are incompatible with the U.S. interest in a peaceful settlement. Hence the United States should state unequivocally that it will not support or endorse any unilateral change in Taiwan's status by either Beijing or Taipei. The United States should make it clear that it favors expanded contact, trade, investment, and other ties as well as the earliest possible start of negotiations between Beijing and Taipei, and that it can accept any change in Taiwan's status to which both sides agree. Washington should encourage Tokyo to join it in saying so.

The best short-term solution to the Taiwan question may be no solution at all: no change in the "one China, but not now" status quo, no reunification, no assertions of independent sovereignty by Taipei. Thus the United States should encourage Beijing and Taipei to discuss deferring negotiations about their long-term relationship for a specific period—say 50 years. In the interim, neither side would attempt unilaterally to alter the status quo. Neither side would threaten or use force against the other.

The rising military tensions in the Taiwan Strait also call for a reevaluation of arms sales to Taiwan. In the 1982 Sino-American communique, China pledged "to strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question," and in return the United States promised to cap the quantity and sophistication of its arms sales to Taiwan, "leading to a final resolution." The United States cannot hold Beijing to its word if Americans do not keep theirs. The sale of 150 F-16 fighters to Taiwan in 1992 and some subsequent deals do not square with the 1982 agreement.

Beijing is now wavering in its determination to stick with a policy of peaceful resolution of its differences with Taipei. How much of this wavering is due to U.S. noncompliance with the 1982 communique and how much to Taipei's new opposition to reunification is unclear. What is clear is that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan no longer work to boost Taipei's confidence that it can work out its differences with Beijing. Instead, they bolster the view that Taiwan can go its own way, regardless of history, geography, and the views of Chinese across the strait. This is not the message the United States should be sending Taiwan. That is why at a minimum the United States should return to strict compliance with Ronald Reagan's 1982 understanding with Deng Xiaoping and insist that Beijing do likewise. And as the United States considers further arms sales to Taiwan, it should weigh their impact on Taipei's intentions and behavior as well as Beijing's. Doing so will not weaken Taiwan's self-defense capability. There is already more in the pipeline than Taiwan's military can easily absorb.

It does not make sense to attempt to sustain Taiwan's current military superiority or even a long-term military balance between Taipei and Beijing. To do so would be to sponsor an arms race that Taiwan cannot, in the long run, hope to win against a vastly larger and equally dynamic society. It is not in the interest of Taiwan or the United States to cast the dispute in military terms. The greatest strengths of Taiwan's 22 million people are their superior political and economic systems, not their capacity to outspend, outarm, or outfight the nearly 1.3 billion Chinese across the strait, with or without backing from U.S. forces. Taiwan's security depends, in the end, on its ability to work out a mutually satisfactory relationship with China.

The United States is no longer the central actor in cross-strait relations, but its words and actions continue to shape their context. Adjustments in U.S. policy do not require the agreement of either Beijing or Taipei for their implementation. The United States should return to a focus on its most important interest in the Taiwan question—ensuring that it is resolved peacefully, by mutual accommodation, rather than in war. The regular summit meetings on which China and the United States have now embarked offers ample opportunity to do so.

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  • CHAS W. FREEMAN JR., is Co-chair of the United States-China Policy Foundation. A former diplomat, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at Beijing from 1981 to 1984 and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1993 to 1994.
  • More By Chas. W. Freeman Jr.