Coming up: Taiwan

Posted: Apr 19, 2001 12:00 AM
The moment is not far away when we will face what is most conveniently referred to as the Taiwan Question. The tense fortnight following the EP-3 incident taught us nothing conclusive, but demonstrated once again the profound nationalistic mood of the people of China. A summary of what we learned (or of what we were reminded) was brilliantly done by John Derbyshire, writing in the current issue of National Review. In his essay on China he writes, "Find a mainlander, preferably one under the age of 30, and ask him which of the following he would prefer: for the Communists to stay in power indefinitely, unreformed, but in full control of the 'three T's' (Tibet, Turkestan, Taiwan); or a democratic, constitutional government without the three T's. His answer will depress you. You can even try this unhappy little experiment with dissidents: same answer."

It is all the more remarkable, from a Western perspective, when we are reminded not only that Taiwan has been under Peking supervision a mere four years in the last century, but that before it was taken by the Japanese in 1895, it was less than an integral part of China, being a mere prefecture of Fujian Province under the Manchu dynasty. But that has not lessened the passion of the Chinese for reannexation, and of course it has helped the historical dilemma not at all that everybody in sight -- not only the Chinese, but the Taiwanese, the Americans and the United Nations -- repeat the catechism of One China. What impends is the dark moment when China opines that this being so, it is downright unfriendly for the United States to supply Taiwan with such weapons as are necessary to protect it from becoming de facto One China.

In Commentary magazine a year ago, observers were asked to comment on likely crises in the foreign policy of the next president. One writer conjectured that there was no way that any constitutional policy formulation would absolutely guide the United States. There aren't, really, policy templates that tell us exactly what to do. There are schools of thought. Some say, "When a nation threatens other nations, the U.S. will intervene." Others, "When a nation threatens its own people, we will intervene." Some would shade that: "When a nondemocratic nation can reasonably be assumed to be developing an ABC (atomic/biological/chemical) capability, we will intervene."

Suppose that at some point ahead Peking were to say that at the end of the then-current month, Taipei must disband its military forces and receive a delegation from Peking, which will, upon landing, take effective control of the government. The moment is imaginable when Peking, confident of its resources and of its cause, can look us in the face and ask: Do you want Taiwan so badly as to countenance a nuclear bomb on Honolulu? And we are right back to balance of terror/mutual assured destruction.

There will be advisers who counsel Mr. Bush to do nothing truly provocative. To sell Taiwan Aegis-style naval weapons would be that, as also, probably, to sell submarines with relevant capability. They will counsel that we can cover our implicit retreat by strengthening our own patrols of the Strait of Formosa, constructing a kind of oceanic Maginot Line.

The trouble here is obvious. Hitler maneuvered around his Maginot Line by relatively simple geographical deployment. In the showdown ahead, the United States would need to face the question whether to activate a deterrent force in our Maginot Line afloat on the China seas. The problem then would be at least as difficult as the problem now, indeed more so. It is in better harmony with the protocols of international behavior for Taiwan to defend itself against a Chinese ultimatum or invasion than for the United States to do so. But the same balance of strategic thinking that would deny to Taiwan the weapons it needs would almost certainly deny to the Seventh Fleet authority to use conclusive defense weapons against a China at war to restore the Manchu frontiers.

How would we like it (we hear this from time to time) if the Chinese were poking about our own coastline? Mr. Derbyshire handles the question bluntly. "The answer is that the United States is a democracy of free people, whose government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, so that the wider America's influence spreads, the better for humanity -- while China is a corrupt, brutish, and lawless despotism, the close containment of which is a pressing interest for the whole human race."

One cannot, of course, expect the Chinese people to be very receptive to his answer. That imposes upon President Bush the obligation to take measures that are not congenial to the Chinese people.