Taiwan and fear in US-China ties

Joseph S. Nye – Taipei Times

Copyright Taipei Times
Monday, Jan 14, 2008, Page 8
Opinion polls indicate that one-third of Americans believe that China
will “soon dominate the world,” while nearly half view China’s
emergence as a “threat to world peace.” In turn, many Chinese fear
that the US will not accept their “peaceful rise.” Americans and
Chinese must avoid such exaggerated fears. Maintaining good US-China
relations will be a key determinant of global stability in this
Perhaps the greatest threat to the bilateral relationship is the
belief that conflict is inevitable. Throughout history, whenever a
rising power creates fear among its neighbors and other great powers,
that fear becomes a cause of conflict. In such circumstances,
seemingly small events can trigger an unforeseen and disastrous chain
Today, the greatest prospect of a destabilizing incident lies in the
Taiwan Strait.
The US does not challenge China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, but it
wants a peaceful settlement that will maintain Taiwan’s democratic
institutions. In Taiwan, there is a growing sense of national
identity, but a sharp division between pragmatists of the pan-blue
alliance, who realize that geography will require a compromise with
the mainland, and the ruling pan-green alliance, which aspires in
varying degrees to achieve independence.
Some observers fear that President Chen Shui-bian ( $BDD?eY( (B) will seek a
pretext to prevent defeat in March’s presidential elections. He is
advocating a referendum on whether Taiwan should join the UN, which
China views as provocative. Chen has replied that it is China “that is
acting provocatively today.”
Washington is concerned. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told
reporters that “we think that Taiwan’s referendum to apply to the UN
under the name `Taiwan’ is a provocative policy. It unnecessarily
raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait and it promises no real benefits
for the people of Taiwan on the international stage.”
She also reiterated the administration policy opposing unilateral
threats by either side that change the status quo.
The same day, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized China
for curtailing US naval visits to China over arms sales to Taiwan.
Gates said he told the Chinese that the sales were consistent with
past policy and that “as long as they continued to build up their
forces on their side of the Taiwan Strait, we would continue to give
Taiwan the resources necessary to defend itself.”
Gates added, however, that despite China’s rising defense budget, “I
don’t consider China an enemy, and I think there are opportunities for
continued cooperation in a number of areas.”
In principle, cross-strait tensions need not lead to conflict. With
increasing change in China and growing economic and social contacts
across the Strait, it should be possible to find a formula that allows
the Taiwanese to maintain their market economy and democratic system
without a placard at the UN.
The US has tried to allow for this evolution by stressing two themes:
no independence for Taiwan and no use of force by China. But given the
danger that could grow out of political competition in Taiwan or
impatience in the People’s Liberation Army, the US would be wise to
encourage more active contacts and negotiations between the two sides.
The US has a broad national interest in maintaining good relations
with China, as well as a specific human rights interest in protecting
Taiwan’s democracy. But the US does not have a national interest in
helping Taiwan become a sovereign country with a seat at the UN, and
efforts by some Taiwanese to do so present the greatest danger of a
miscalculation that could create enmity between the US and China. Some
Chinese already suspect the US of seeking an independent Taiwan as an
“unsinkable aircraft carrier” against a future Chinese enemy. They are
wrong, but such suspicions can feed a climate of enmity.
If the US treats China as an enemy, it will ensure future enmity.
While we cannot be sure how China will evolve, it makes no sense to
foreclose the prospect of a better future. Washington’s policy
combines economic integration with a hedge against future uncertainty.
The US-Japan security alliance means China cannot play a “Japan card.”
But while such hedging is natural in world politics, modesty is
important for both sides. If the overall climate is one of distrust,
what looks like a hedge to one side can look like a threat to the
There is no need for the US and China to go to war. Both must take
care that an incident over Taiwan does not lead in that direction, and
avoid letting exaggerated fears create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University.

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