TAIWAN REDUX: THEY BACKED DOWN
ONCE—BUT WILL THEY BACK DOWN AGAIN?
The Taiwanese are being permitted
to buy a $6 billion bundle of military goodies from the United States, but,
says the Obama Administration, they are not to get their hands on the hot
new jet fighters they want (measly upgrades only). Even so, from across the
inherently-tense Taiwan Strait, China is in official huffy protest,
allegedly angry that the U.S. is selling Taiwan anything at all.
At the same time, the governing
Beijing elite is trying to keep a composed public face. Well short of
seeming wimpy to the home crowd, it nonetheless is demonstrating scant
appetite for showy preliminaries to World War Three. And for that, of
course, the entire world is grateful. Thus would include the incumbent
Taiwan administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, now campaigning for
re-election on its policy of engagement, not confrontation, with the
Please note that it is not just
China but also the United Nations and the vast majority of governments
around the world that do not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent
government. But that does not mean anyone wishes to see it swallowed whole
by the People’s Liberation Army. Or that it doesn’t function as a separate
Hence, America’s history of
take-away-and give-back with Taiwan will remain a substantial thorn in the
U.S.-China bilateral relationship for the foreseeable future. And so we have
today a story that illustrates what is really going on behind the scenes.
It concerns an official of the
Chinese government I met some years ago. He was a diplomat assigned to the
West Coast of the United States. This relatively young man was also (I
knew…) a member of the secretive Ministry of State Security.
I had no problem with that. All
over the globe, representatives of many governments, assuming positions like
economic or cultural attaché, sometimes do double duty as secret agents. Why
should China be any different? Besides, this gentleman was charming and his
dedication to his homeland unparalleled. At one point he asked me
point-blank something like: “Do you really think the American people care
enough about Taiwan to go to war to defend it if it ever came to that?”
I knew that question came from deep
within the bowels of Chinese state security, and that my answer, whatever it
was, would get back to those bowels: so I offered an answer as honest as
possible. I said:
I have no idea.
However, I did add: The American
character adores underdogs (think Kuwait, summer 1990, Iraq’s invasion…the
U.S. public solidly behind President George Bush Sr., not just because of
oil). Think … oh, well, as just a wild example: Taiwan under attack from the
overbearing China giant.
I think he got it: This peculiar
Americanism could not be ignored.
I also think he agreed with me that
the thorny Taiwan issue will not fatally disrupt the evolving, historically
pivotal and potentially volatile China-U.S. relationship as long as the
professional foreign-policy establishments on both sides of the Pacific are
permitted to keep the issue under wraps. In this spirit, the kind of quiet
trans-Pacific diplomacy between Beijing and Washington that necessarily
preceded the recent halfway-house arms-deal decision needs to be massively
applauded. In fact, the argument could be made that the diplomats involved
in sorting this issue out again ought to be put up for a collective Nobel
Peace Prize (some past awardees have accomplished a lot less…).
The pros on both sides well realize
that the safest ground is a middle ground of foggy ambivalence. This means
keeping the issue (1) on the back burner, (2) under the radar, (3) out of
the spotlight … well, all over-writing aside, you get the idea.
Ordinarily, low-keying things is
not easy with high-profile foreign policy issues, especially if you are
President of the United States, -- and even if you are President of the
People’s Republic of China. For in this age of social media and all manner
of hard-to-suppress media technology, the flash-point mood of the public can
quickly become the titanic twitter of the moment, no matter the structure of
the political system.
So, keeping the Taiwan issue from
metastasizing into a mass issue won’t be easy, in America or China. In the
U.S., all major foreign policy decisions are invariably Presidential
decisions, as the late, great Theodore Sorensen used to put it to his
graduate-students at Princeton. He’d say something like: “Gentlemen, the
Secretary of State might offer good advice or bad advice. But it is the
President’s decision that is decisive for the big ones.”
So here’s another related story: In
1996 the angry Chinese created a fuss with a flurry of missile volleys
deliberately aimed well off target – but still in the general direction of
Taiwan. The U.S. responded by dispatching an aircraft carrier group.
Military advisors urged then President Bill Clinton to permit the carrier to
steam into the Strait between the island and the mainland in a determined
show of U.S. force.
That such an incendiary move did
not happen was due to the intervention of wiser heads. They included
the-then U.S. Ambassador to China, James Sasser, a good old-boy from
Tennessee. In a rare use of personal privilege, the former senator
personally telephoned Clinton at the White House to warn that such a
maneuver would be viewed by China as the intervention of an imperialist
bully in what Beijing regarded as an internal matter.
Sasser was right. And Clinton –
bless him --- did listen. The carrier group halted outside the gates of the
Strait; then, the Chinese high command un-cocked their weapons; and the
crisis wound down. But it was a close call -- closer than is generally
What will happen if a similar
scenario were to arise again? It’s the job of the diplomats on both sides of
the Pacific to somehow see that it doesn’t. Blessed be the brave warriors of
under-the-radar ambiguity. And applaud the fog of non-war.