Fri, Nov 06, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Don’t concede more on Taiwan

By Hisahiko Okazaki

For those who are concerned that democratic Taiwan should continue to have the freedom to choose its own future, US President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Beijing brings back the memory of a regrettable episode during former US president Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June 1998.

Early in the spring of that year there were signs that the US government would assure China that Washington would not defend Taiwan if it declared independence. On March 13, Joseph Nye proposed in a Washington Post op-ed piece to eliminate the ambiguity in the US position by stating that the US would not recognize or defend Taiwan if it were to declare independence.

I argued against such a policy in an op-ed piece in the Japan Times and directly to the US assistant secretary of state Stanley Roth in Tokyo when he was accompanying US secretary of state Madeline Albright on her way to Beijing to prepare for Clinton’s visit.

My argument was as follows: “Suppose Taiwan declared independence and China used forced, believing in the American statement of its position, I wonder whether the American public and the Congress would acquiesce in abandoning a free and democratic Taiwan to China. If not, it is tantamount to tricking China into a war. It would be similar to how the Korean War began. The United States declared that South Korea is outside its defense line, but intervened when the North launched an attack, having possibly believed in your words.”

I do not know whether my arguments had any influence, but there were no statements about not defending Taiwan then. On the eve of Clinton’s visit, however, stories began to circulate that he was going to state a “three nos” policy: The US would oppose Taiwan independence, oppose a “one China, one Taiwan” policy and oppose Taiwan’s formal membership in state-based international organizations.

Fortunately, there was no mention of “three nos” in Clinton’s joint press conference with the Chinese president Jiang Zeming (江澤民), nor in Clinton’s major policy speech at Peking University. Then the volte-face came. On a visit to Shanghai, Clinton announced the “three nos” during a dialogue with Chinese intellectuals on a TV show.

Although the US Congress quickly rejected Clinton’s commitment through resolutions of both Houses, China may still view his remarks as an official commitment of a US president and may quite likely expect Obama to reconfirm the three nos.

It is not difficult to suspect that there were some disgraceful deals behind the scenes. The date of Clinton’s visit, to start with, is believed to have been sought by the US to turn attention away from a domestic scandal, and that indebted the US to announce the three nos, while bypassing Japan and South Korea to make the longest trip Clinton paid to a single country. In addition, the topics of the Shanghai TV interview, which was originally scheduled to focus on cultural affairs, appeared to have been changed on short notice.

Through the 37-year history of US-China engagement, the US has consistently retreated in the war of semantics about Taiwan. The US has been unable to muster points against the steel wall of one-party dictatorship. It lost inch-by-inch every time. Each time, however, Washington reassured the US public that its position hadn’t changed.

How deceptively the US position had eroded can be seen in the comments made by Clinton. He began his remarks on the “three nos” by stating that he was reiterating US policy on Taiwan but not specifying the time of the previous remarks, whether it was during his meetings in Beijing or much earlier. Then national security adviser Sandy Berger said the US had simply repeated its basic position.

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