Taiwan, a small island off the southeastern coast of China, is a foreign relations time bomb that could potentially envelop the United States and China in armed conflict.
Presently, China is asserting it's right to assimilate the province into the mainland. Taiwan, which has maintained its sovereignty for more than five decades, is rehearsing possible defense scenarios.
It is against this backdrop, that President Bush must now weigh whether to equip Taiwan with sophisticated military technology necessary to defend the county against invasion.
If President Bush intervenes, he will likely offend the Asian Goliath and exacerbate the already fraying tapestry of U.S.-Sino relations. If he attempts to appease Mainland China, on the other hand, he may risk sending the message that their threats of military expansion will garner respect.
The situation is further complicated by internal struggles on the mainland, including domestic rioting, a recent military crackdown on civilians and a ruling party that is slouching toward transition. Amid such domestic uncertainty, it might be tempting for the Chinese leadership to rally the citizenry by defining the United States as an evil microbe in their midst.
For this reason, the United States must be cautious not to economically isolate and marginalize China, as some of our more reactionary leaders are advocating. Clearly, China has emerged as the dominant economic and military power in that region. Ignoring this fact and treating it as a tin-pot dictatorship would, at best erode our influence in that region and at worst provoke China to lash out in a show of masculine dominance.
The latter possibility was implicit following China's initial detention of American servicemen following the collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a U.S. reconnaissance plane on April 1. China's ominous stance was an attempt to project the threat of serious military entanglement if the United States digs in its heels around Taiwan's defense.
Otherwise stated, China is testing the new president's resolve.
After eight years of Clinton's naive appeasement plan, China's leaders are curious to gauge how the new administration will respond to their provocation.
A brief recap:
One of President Clinton's sacred cows was that a policy of "engagement" with Beijing was the most effective means of stemming Chinese militarism. That is to say, by wooing China, we could influence them to honor human rights, soothe their military aggression, alter their very political system, and convert the Asian Goliath into a kinder, more peaceful world presence. The reality was that Clinton's naive appeasement plan neither altered China's human rights policies nor restrained its military expansionism. What's worse, the absence of clearly defined foreign policy goals, coupled with Clinton's desperate attempt to appease China even as they threatened military expansion, sent the message that intimidating behavior was a good strategy for getting what they wanted - including credibility as a global player.
Though we must be cautious not to overreact to China's most recent saber rattling, the Bush administration must also place clear limits on Chinese aggressions. The deployment of American military forces would send the unmistakable message that further acts of aggression will no longer be indulged.
At the same time, however, the United States must continue to pursue open trade with China while facilitating their participation in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Opening Beijing's markets will further tie China into the international community and thus represents the greatest end game for long-term stability.
In the short term, though, the Bush administration must send the unmistakable message that there will be serious repercussions for any further military provocation. The failure to do so, could have repercussions no less pervasive than war between the two countries.