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Relations across the Taiwan Strait

June Teufel Dreyer

By June Teufel Dreyer
Special to CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- When Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui on July 9, 1999, described his country's relations with China as a "special state-to-state relationship," the Beijing government reacted with fury.

Accusing Lee of abandoning the "one-China" policy that had governed relations between the two sides for nearly 30 years, Beijing demanded that he retract the statement before negotiations between them could resume. The invective, which compared Lee to a "dog in the water who must be beaten" (lest he re-emerge on land) and "a traitor who will be cursed for a thousand years," was accompanied by hints that military force might be used against the island.

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Lee denied abandoning the "one-China" policy, saying it is Beijing's definition of one China that he rejects. Backed by widespread domestic approval of the pronouncement, Lee has not retracted his words.

Americans were concerned this might lead to a replay of the tensions of 1995-96: When military exercises by China in the Taiwan Strait looked as if they might escalate into a genuine invasion, the United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area. Beijing threatened that if the carriers entered the strait, the Chinese military would destroy them.

China military exercises
China performs military exercises near the Taiwan Strait just before Taiwan's first fully democratic presidential elections in March 1996  

The exercises ended soon after the American ships arrived. The ships did not enter the strait. No invasion took place, and there was no confrontation. No one, however, could be sure the resolution of the next crisis would be as peaceful.

Relations across the strait have been tense for decades. China calls Taiwan a renegade province, a claim Taiwan rejects.

In fact, Taiwan had been a province of China for barely a decade when Japan annexed it in 1895 following the first Sino-Japanese War. The island had been regarded as a remote outpost of Chinese civilization, populated by aborigines of Polynesian stock and former residents of Fujian, the Chinese province nearest Taiwan. The latter group came not to plant the flag of the ancestral land, but to flee economic and social problems on the mainland.

Japan governed the island for 50 years before returning Taiwan to China in 1945, a result of its defeat in World War II. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party, or KMT, governed China at the time. Four years later Chiang lost to the Communists and fled with his troops and other refugees to Taiwan. There he set up a "temporary" capital in Taipei and vowed to someday dislodge the Communists from the mainland. Chiang was an autocratic ruler, especially to the Taiwanese natives, who detested the "carpetbagger" invaders.

Chiang and Stilwell
Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang at an April 1942 meeting in Maymyo, Burma, with Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, American commander of the China Expeditionary Forces during World War II  

As the years passed, the Kuomintang's claim to all of China became increasingly unrealistic. At the same time, both the United States and China were wary of the Soviet Union's military power and expansionist agenda. An alliance between the world's wealthiest nation and the most populous nation seemed a smart way to counter Soviet influence. First, however, the leaders of China demanded a resolution of the Taiwan problem.

This placed Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's national security adviser, in a dilemma. As a result of the Korean War, when U.S. troops fought Chinese troops, America had signed a security treaty with the Nationalist government on Taiwan -- which had numerous supporters in the United States, including influential members of Congress.

In the end, a compromise was reached. Enshrined in the Shanghai Communique of February 1972 is the statement that all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed there was only one China and that the United States recognized this position.

It is important to note that the United States took no position on which China was the one China. The People's Republic insisted in the communique that it was the one China. Although the United States said that any resolution of the Taiwan question must be peaceful, the People's Republic refused to foreswear the use of force.

The Shanghai Communique was hailed as a brilliant Kissingerian solution and a significant step toward rapprochement. Nevertheless, Kissinger's formula ignored the fact that millions of ethnic Chinese on Taiwan felt no affinity with the mainland and would not have agreed with the one-China premise. They were not, however, able to voice such sentiments. Although the Kuomintang's rule was never as stringent as that of the Communist Party, those who advocated independence risked long prison terms and, occasionally, torture.

Only recently has it been revealed that Kissinger secretly promised the Chinese that there would be further talks on ending arms sales to Taiwan. Full normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations would not occur until President Carter's administration.

Deng and Carter
Communist leader Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter sign diplomatic agreements between the United States and China, January 1979  

Carter had criticized Nixon and Kissinger's secrecy in making foreign policy, but his administration conducted its China policy in the same manner, minus the finesse. Carter chose the day after Congress adjourned for the winter holidays to announce that normalization with China would commence on January 1, 1979. Not only did he fail to consult Congress, but also he disregarded its vote, barely a week earlier, that no relations were to be established with China at the expense of Taiwan.

Carter said the United States was immediately breaking diplomatic relations and abrogating its security treaty with the Taiwan government.

Bipartisan congressional wrath descended on Carter, and Taiwan's supporters mobilized quickly and vociferously. One result was the Taiwan Relations Act, signed into law in April 1979.

Among other provisions, the act obligates the United States to supply Taiwan with such defensive weapons as are necessary to maintain a balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. It also states that America's decision to establish diplomatic relations with China rested on the expectation that the future of Taiwan would be determined by peaceful means. Any other method would be "of grave concern" to the United States.

The Taiwan Relations Act does not stipulate what concrete actions might result from this grave concern. The law's framers were concerned this might tempt the leaders of the Taiwan government into irresponsible actions. Ambiguity, of course, creates risks of its own: If countries are not clear about the consequences of their actions, they may be tempted to test the limits of U.S. forbearance.

Taiwan protesters demonstrate against Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in March 1996 just before Taiwan's first fully democratic presidential election  

This is essentially what has happened. China has made several attempts to modify or neutralize the Taiwan Relations Act. In a joint U.S.-China communique in August 1982, for example, the United States pledged to gradually reduce the arms sold to Taiwan. Since the United States interpreted this to mean that it would reduce arms sales only as tensions diminished in the Taiwan Strait, the pledge has had little impact. And, as exemplified in the crisis of 1995-96, the United States continues to demonstrate its resolve.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has evolved from an authoritarian regime to a full-fledged democracy whose economic prosperity is the envy of Asia. Its citizens, well-educated and highly articulate, do not consider themselves part of China. The overwhelming majority have no desire to be part of it. They would like assurances of U.S. backing for their separate status. The result is a volatile mix of emotions, with the United States inextricably involved.

June Teufel Dreyer is a professor in the department of political science at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. A specialist on the Chinese military, she is writing a book on China-Taiwan relations tentatively titled, "Tug of War." The third edition of her book, "China's Political System: Modernization and Tradition," has just been published by Addison Wesley Longman.

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