U.S.-Chinese Relations Strained Over Taiwan

Wade Boese

IN A MOVE that prompted U.S. warnings that any military action would cause "grave concern," Beijing issued a white paper February 21 expanding the circumstances under which it would use force to reunify Taiwan with China. Couched amid statements promoting peaceful reunification, Beijing's new threat caught U.S. officials off-guard because U.S.-Chinese relations had appeared to be on the mend after military ties between the two countries resumed in January. The timing of the paper precedes Taiwan's upcoming presidential election and follows the passage of pro-Taiwan legislation in the U.S. Congress.

Released by China's State Council just days after the visit of a high-level U.S. delegation, the white paper warned that China would use force if Taiwan indefinitely postponed reunification negotiations. In the past, China had threatened force only if Taiwan, which Beijing considers a part of China, declared independence or if a foreign power occupied the island. China did not attach a time frame to its new threat. According to a State Department official, China had previously stated in private that it would not wait indefinitely for reunification, but this was the first time China had explicitly linked that sentiment to the use of force.

However, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen denied on February 29 that the white paper signaled a change in China's Taiwan policy and claimed the paper was aimed at "urging the Taiwan authorities to sit down to hold talks and negotiations." The white paper said China would do "its best" to achieve peaceful reunification and that force would be the "last choice made under compelled circumstances." China pledged that Taiwan would "enjoy a high degree of autonomy" after reunification and that troops and administrative personnel would not be "stationed" in Taiwan.

The white paper described Taiwan as the "most crucial and most sensitive" issue between the United States and China. While U.S. officials reiterated long-standing U.S. policy that the content of the cross-strait dialogue is a matter for the two parties involved, State Department spokesman James Rubin described the new formulation as "unhelpful" and "counterproductive." Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979 and acknowledges Beijing's position that Taiwan is part of China.

U.S.-Chinese relations further deteriorated last May following NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, leading China to suspend relations with the U.S. military. With a January 25-26 visit by Chinese Lieutenant General Xiong Guangkai to Washington, those ties were resumed. The two sides agreed on a tentative program for renewing high-level visits and confidence-building measures, such as talks to prevent incidents at sea.

Military Balance in the Strait

According to the white paper, no country that has diplomatic relations with China should provide arms to Taiwan. Specifically, China attacked the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed on February 1, as "gross interference" in China's internal affairs. The legislation mandates closer ties between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries, including certification of direct secure communications, and administration reports to Congress on Taiwanese arms requests, the Chinese threat and U.S. contingency planning for the Asia-Pacific region.

President Clinton's advisors would recommend vetoing the legislation if necessary, though it is less provocative than a Senate version of the act that authorizes the president to make specific weapons, including theater missile defense (TMD) equipment, available to Taiwan. Administration officials contend the act would raise tensions and, ultimately, undermine Taiwan's security. The Senate, in which support for the act is tempered by senators who back granting China permanent normal trade relations in line with Beijing's pending World Trade Organization membership, has yet to act on either version of the bill.

According to a Defense Department official, the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries currently "conduct informal dialogue" and Taiwan receives U.S. training for "defense articles and services" supplied by the United States. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are governed by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and the 1982 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué. The former calls on Washington to help Taiwan "maintain a sufficient self-defense capability," while the latter includes a U.S. pledge not to "carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan" and not to sell weapons qualitatively or quantitatively exceeding those supplied in years prior to 1982.

Taiwan's pending request for four advanced U.S. destroyers with Aegis combat systems, designed to counter missiles and aircraft, has angered Beijing, though China is gradually modernizing its own navy. During the second week of February, China received the first of two Russian-built Sovremennyy-class destroyers, which will be equipped with the supersonic, sea-skimming, anti-ship Sunburn missile.

A Defense Department spokesman commented on February 10 that "this is a good ship" but noted that the destroyer would "not significantly change the balance of power" in the strait. Last year, the Pentagon reported to Congress that in 2005 Taipei would still possess a "qualitative edge over Beijing in terms of significant weapons and equipment." A follow-up report is under review.

The possible future sale or sharing of U.S. TMD systems to Taiwan is China's primary concern. Washington has not decided whether to sell such systems, but Walter Slocombe, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said he made clear in the recent talks with Xiong that TMD is an issue, in part, because of Chinese missile deployments across from Taiwan.

China fired missiles into the waters off the coast of Taiwan prior to the island's first popular presidential election in 1996. Release of the white paper may reflect a more measured attempt by China to weigh in on this year's March 18 presidential election, in which the three major candidates, one of which causes particular concern in Beijing, are running very close.