Ignoring Taiwan at Our Peril

Thursday, October 30, 1997

In July 1960, a crisis in a former African colony threatened a military confrontation between two nuclear superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. The African colony was the former Belgian Congo, renamed Zaire and recently re-renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. With President Eisenhower's approval, a nuclear-armed U.S. aircraft carrier at anchor off Senegal was ordered to maneuver off the Congo River in case Nikita Khrushchev sent Red Army troops to Leopoldville to help Patrice Lumumba--remember?--the then Congolese prime minister, later assassinated. I was there for the Christian Science Monitor alongside Arnaud de Borchgrave representing Newsweek. And we knew we were covering a big, big world news story.

In 1997, a civil war in Zaire-Congo raged on for many months, and let's face it: Nobody really cared. The Congo problem was humanitarian, not political. What could possibly happen in Zaire to trigger a world crisis? Nothing.

Today little wars, civil wars, so-called low-intensity conflicts, dot the world landscape--in Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Afghanistan, Brazzaville, Sudan, Liberia, and onetime Yugoslavia; involved are the Sikhs in India, the Basques in Spain, the Irish Republican Army, and the Kurds in Iraq. None of these conflicts seems to mean much because the cold war is now over, confrontations are a thing of the past. These conflicts are of interest primarily to the State Department's duty-bound geographic desks and to CNN's Christine Amanpour.

But before we become too complacent about the peaceful state of the world and stifle a yawn about Hong Kong's seemingly dismal future, I would like to suggest that it will not be long before the United States will have a real confrontation with the only remaining empire in the world, the People's Republic of China. And it will not be about what may happen in Hong Kong.

The Sino-U.S. confrontation will be over Beijing's unswerving determination that, come what may and at whatever cost, Taiwan must become part of mainland China, with no ifs, ands, or buts. And if the Clinton administration has a Taiwan policy that comprehends the danger of communist aggression against that democracy, I do not know it. One big reason there is no realistic policy about Taiwan is that the U.S. military is no longer prepared for even one major contingency.

Professors Frederick W. Kagan and David T. Fautuna of West Point have described in overwhelming detail (Commentary Magazine, May 1997) the catas-trophe that has befallen U.S. military preparedness. Today's army could not field the force that won the 1990 gulf war against Iraq.

Oh, yes, last year, when Beijing started to lob missiles over the island, 140 miles from the China coast, because Taiwan was holding free elections, the Seventh Fleet was ordered to show the flag by cruising the waters between the mainland and Taiwan. The fleet never actually entered those waters but carefully stayed at the north end. The power that rules China today, the command of the People's Liberation Army, was not intimidated by the U.S. Navy.

In my opinion, Beijing is going to be "correct" about Hong Kong after the takeover for many reasons: Hong Kong know-how, its trained manpower, its "cash cow" assets, as well as the fact that a majority of the population, seeing no alternative, is ready to accept the legitimacy of Beijing rule. The PRC would not want to endanger Hong Kong entrepreneurship. China's behaving decently toward Hong Kong would seem to predict a possible peaceful coexistence between China and Taiwan, if the island were ready to go from independence to dependence on the homeland. But what if Taiwan, which seeks international recognition despite its exclusion from the United Nations, will not accept Beijing suzerainty? What then, President Clinton?

Perhaps the answer is to be found in the World Factbook 1995, published by the CIA. In its alphabetic listing of 192 countries, Taiwan does not figure. So anomalous is Taiwan's status that this official publication of the U.S. government has a separate category for Taiwan. Its name and data appear out of alphabetic order after the last listing, Zimbabwe. However, Hong Kong and Macao are listed alphabetically, even though they are not independent countries. To have inserted Taiwan in correct alphabetic order between Syria and Tajikistan would have meant loud protests from Beijing, so our government kowtows to Communist China.

In actual fact, Taiwan does not exist for the U.S. government, although it is an important U.S. trading partner. Exports in recent years to the United States have run about 30 percent, and imports have totaled about 22 percent.

The debate over granting China most favored nation status is pretty much over only because elite opinion, especially among conservatives, is ready to accept MFN status for China without asking the crucial question: What about Taiwan, a prosperous free market democracy?