When British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sought to appease Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler by standing aside while Hitler's armies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, he justified his decision in a radio address saying it was horrible that Britain should consider going to war "because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing."
Today, history may be repeating itself, with China threatening to use force to conquer Taiwan.
US support for far-away Taipei is dwindling, making it possible that Washington might not help defend Taiwan against China.
Consider the subtle change in US President George W. Bush's stance. Shortly after he took office in 2001, the president told a TV interviewer that the US would do "whatever it takes" to protect Taiwan.
"Our nation will help Taiwan to defend itself," he declared.
In an address in Prague last month, the president praised Taiwan and South Korea for marching toward democracy. But he said not a word about the US helping to defend Taiwan against a China that has repeatedly said it will use force if Taiwan does not submit peacefully.
This turnabout has been several years in the making.
Three years ago, Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute in Washington wrote an assessment that is increasingly heard today in an echo of Chamberlain:
"No reasonable American would be happy about the possibility of a democratic Taiwan being forcibly absorbed by an authoritarian China, but preserving Taiwan's de facto independence is not worth risking war with a nuclear-armed power capable of striking the United States," he wrote.
Those who doubt the willingness of the US to defend Taiwan point to blood and funds spent in the unpopular war in Iraq. Even though the US could confront China with naval and air power, they argue, polls indicate that political support would be lacking.
Further, they point to China's rise as a political and military power that must be reckoned with, and the fear of China in other Asian countries. They point to the economic intertwining of the US and China. Last year China was the second-largest exporter to the US after Canada, and the fourth-largest market for US exports after Canada, Mexico and Japan.
Political leaders in Taiwan, notably President Chen Shui-bian (
While the application would be blocked by China, an affirmative vote on the referendum would underscore Taiwan's drive for independence and erode China's claim over Taiwan.
The US State Department immediately reflected Bush's displeasure: "The US opposes any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan's status unilaterally," the department asserted.
"Such a move would appear to run counter to President Chen's repeated commitments to President Bush" not to press for independence, it said.
Taiwan has also lost US support by appearing to be unwilling to defend itself. Taipei has dithered over the purchase of a large arms package that Bush offered in 2001 and US officers have said that Taiwan's forces, while showing signs of improvement, have been slow to modernize.
The consequences of US failure to defend Taiwan would be profound.
An experienced China watcher said: "There is no upside to this."
The US' reputation as a reliable ally would be damaged, and possibly destroyed, in the eyes of treaty partners in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. The same would be true of friends in Singapore, Indonesia and India.
Acquiescing in China's takeover of Taiwan would jeopardize US naval supremacy in the western Pacific and to give China control of the northern entrance of the South China Sea, through which more shipping passes than through the Suez and Panama canals combined.
To abandon a fledgling democracy would undercut the ability of any administration in Washington, whether Republican or Democratic, to persuade other countries to undertake democratic reforms.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that China would be satisfied with conquering Taiwan. Beijing is acquiring the capability to project power beyond Taiwan into the rest of Asia and the Pacific.
This analogy, too, is rooted in history.
After Chamberlain's address in 1938, Winston Churchill, who was to become Britain's wartime leader, muttered: "The government had to choose between shame and war. They choose shame and they will get war."
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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