Preventing War in the Taiwan Strait: Restraining Taiwan--and Beijing

Courtesy Reuters

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

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