A TALE OF TWO CHINAS: The Future of Taiwan

Wednesday, January 26, 2000

What is the future of Taiwan? Deteriorating Taiwan-China relations could be the first foreign policy crisis for the next American President. What is the history of the Taiwan-China situation? Is Taiwan an independent state? If so, why does the United States not recognize Taiwan's sovereignty? How should the U.S. respond if tensions between Taiwan and China increase?

Recorded on Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge". I'm Peter Robinson.

Our show today: A tale of two Chinas. The People's Republic of China, or mainland China. And the Republic of China, or Taiwan.

Taiwan has a fledgling but vigorous democracy. Mainland China: a communist oligarchy.

Taiwan has free markets and a high-tech economy. Indeed, aside from the United States and Japan, Taiwan produces more computer hardware than any other country on earth. Mainland China: mainland China has a huge labor force, of course, but low skills, low wage rates, with the result that it produces low tech products such as toys.

The United States has full diplomatic relations with mainland China. What we have with Taiwan is friendly relations. There's also a resolution that we enacted in 1979 in which we promise, but only to ourselves, to defend Taiwan.

Now in recent years there has been growing tensions between mainland China and Taiwan, including a buildup of military forces here, across from Taiwan, and a lobbing of missiles in the direction of Taiwan, raising the question of just how serious we are about defending this island.

With us today, three guests. Mike Oksenburg is a China scholar at Stanford University. Harry Rowen is a former assistant secretary of defense, and the director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center. David Liu is on leave from the ministry of foreign affairs in Taiwan.

As you'll see, all three agree that the tension between mainland China and Taiwan could very well provoke the first big crisis for the next American president.

The United States does not now recognize Taiwan. Recently, Papua, New Guinea granted full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.

Harry, should the United States follow in the footsteps of Papua, New Guinea?

Harry Rowen: Absolutely not.

Peter Robinson: Not. Mike?

Michel Oksenburg: No.

Peter Robinson: No. David, would Taiwan like the United States to follow in the footsteps of Papua, New Guinea?

David Liu: We would like to. But we understand, there's a lot of difficulty there.

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, let me ask briefly a few questions about the history of Taiwan versus mainland China.

David, who was Chiang Kai Shek?

David Liu: He was a generallisimo back in World War II and led China against the Japanese war.

Peter Robinson: And he fought the communists under Mao?

David Liu: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And in 1948?

David Liu: In 1947, '48 and '49, we lost the civil war, and Chiang came to Taiwan in '49.

Peter Robinson: And established a government in Taiwan?

David Liu: No, it's not established. The government of Republic of China is founded by Dr. Sun Yat Sen back in 1911. So the government that came over to Taiwan is kind of fleeing to Taiwan.

Peter Robinson: I see. Now would it be fair to say that in the first decade after Chiang Kai Shek fled to Taiwan there was an authoritative government, but relative economic freedom?

David Liu: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right, and then a movement toward democracy much more recently. When were the first free elections held in Taiwan?

David Liu: Five years ago.

Peter Robinson: So what we have in Taiwan is a progression over about half a century from an authoritarian government, to a very vigorous free market economy, to the current position of a free-market economy and a democratic government, right?

David Liu: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Mike, mainland China during the same period.

Michel Oksenburg: Well, it's really--can be divided into two stages. A period of harsh totalitarian rule under Mao Tse Tung, a communist obviously, from 1949 to 1978. And then from 1978 to the present, continued Communist Party domination of China, but a move toward what I would call a classic authoritarian regime, and a move toward a market economy.

Peter Robinson: Authoritarian regime meaning that they're permitting freedom at least within the economic sphere?

Michel Oksenburg: Freedom, and the capacity of individuals to pursue private interests as long as they do not oppose the state.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Any political prisoners in Taiwan?

David Liu: Right now, no.

Peter Robinson: Any political prisoners?

Michel Oksenburg: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Lots of them?

Michel Oksenburg: Lots of them.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Harry, this sounds to me like a big nasty country and a little lovely country. Why is it that the United States grants recognition to the big nasty country and not to the little lovely country?

Harry Rowen: It's a product of history, for one thing. When the government moved, as we've just been told by David--

Peter Robinson: Chiang Kai Shek left the mainland.

Harry Rowen: Chiang Kai Shek left the mainland, we continued our recognition of the government that left. There was this communist regime that took over on the mainland which at that time, and for some time to come, was closely aligned with the Soviet Union. This was the Cold War. These were definitely bad guys.

Peter Robinson: Mao was undoubtedly a bad guy.

Harry Rowen: Undoubtedly a bad guy. And linked with Stalin, who also was a very bad guy. As time went on, there was a break between China and the Soviet Union; that was quite significant. And we recognized the realities of power, I think is the best way to put it, that China was becoming a powerful place, would become a more powerful place. So we changed our stance.

Peter Robinson: And it was Nixon? Nixon to China that was the beginning of it?

Harry Rowen: Well, Nixon going to China was very important in the evolution. But it wasn't until later on in the '70s--

Michel Oksenburg: You've missed an important point it seems to me, namely, that after Chiang Kai Shek retreated to Taiwan with his government, he continued to claim that he was the government, his was the government of all China. So what we have here are, until very recently, that both Taiwan and mainland claimed that their governments were the government of all China. So the United States had to choose between one or the other, and so did the entire world.

Peter Robinson: Because neither one of them recognized Taiwan as a separate entity.

Harry Rowen: That's exactly right, and we have never accepted the notion that they were separate. So everybody is agreed on that point.

But we switched sides in the mid-'70s, and we recognized Beijing's regime, and we de-recognized Taiwan. However, we did not want to see Taiwan go down the tubes. We did not want, people very deeply in this country, Congress, many people wanted to see an entity in Taiwan continue.

And so that's how we got into this rather strange relationship of de-recognizing it.

Peter Robinson: This strange relationship was enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Under that act, just what is the United States committed to?

Fantasy Island

The United States has been pledged--that seems to be the word, pledged--to the defense of Taiwan. Have I got that about right?

Harry Rowen: Not quite.

Peter Robinson: All right, clear it up for me.

Harry Rowen: Well, first of all, it's not a pledge to Taiwan, it's a pledge to ourselves, because we don't have a treaty obligation to Taiwan.

Peter Robinson: Yes, it's weaker--weaker, would that be fair to say?

Harry Rowen: I think that's fair to say. But secondly, it's that we will--the language is that we will assist Taiwan to maintain its capacity for its self-defense, and secondly, that the United States has a broader responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the region.

And that means that if the mainland were to attack Taiwan, particularly unprovoked, that that would be a challenge to maintenance of stability in the region.

Peter Robinson: This is not a chit that we've given Taiwan that it can call in, this is a string we've tied around our own finger. If they get into trouble, we're supposed to remember to help?

Harry Rowen: Yes, although Taiwan certainly considers it as something that involves American credibility, as does Japan, as does South Korea.

Peter Robinson: President Li Tung Wei said in 1999 that Taiwan and the mainland have, and I quote, a special state-to-state relationship. What did he mean by that?

David Liu: This kind of state-to-state situation, current situation, is an effect, since Taiwan, Republic of China, and People's Republic of China, are separated by the Taiwan strait.

Peter Robinson: So this was not an assertion of independence? It was a demand for respect from Beijing?

David Liu: Respect, and equal footing.

Peter Robinson: Equal footing? Does that make you nervous, Mike?

Michel Oksenburg: Well, it's more, I would dare say, than equal footing. Because the equal footing statement came from Li Tung Wei as early as 1991. Now, he insists that Taiwan be recognized by the mainland as having the status of a state, meaning in international affairs, nearly a separate entity. And exactly what that means of course has become somewhat contentious.

Peter Robinson: Harry, we de-recognized Taiwan and re-recognized the mainland on account of reality. But isn't there reality that Taiwan is a state? It walks like a state, it quacks like a state, it must be a state?

Harry Rowen: No, there is a reality out there, but it doesn't have that final symbolic significance, and this is an issue which is very troublesome. It could lead to really serious trouble.

Peter Robinson: Well, if there is serious trouble between China and Taiwan, how should the United States respond?

Peking Duck and Cover

Peter Robinson: Let me put to you a hypothetical situation. Mainland China begins popping missiles into the shipping lands leading to Taiwan. Taiwan imports most of its food. It imports nearly all of its energy. Shipping going into Taiwan is of course disturbed. The financial markets in Taiwan tank. We have a world crisis, and it happens [snaps fingers] within 24 hours. What do we do about it?

Now, first, David, if you were in Washington representing Taiwan, what would you hope the United States would do about it?

David Liu: Try to help Taiwan defend Taiwan, because this is a kind of war, and some blockade or whatever term they want to use, any kind of name. But actually a blockade is a kind of form of war.

Peter Robinson: Effectively a blockade. So you want us to help you?

David Liu: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Harry, should we help? And how should we help?

Harry Rowen: Well, something like that event has already occurred a couple of years ago, three years ago, and we sent two carrier battlegroups, which was a sign that we were in fact intervening, and that's quite possibly what would happen again.

But I believe that you need to specify more what was it that triggered these events. What set off those missiles? Who did what? Because I think that would be very important in judging an American reaction, both what we would do and what we should do would be a consequence of what set this off.

Peter Robinson: I'll say that the new president of Taiwan followed in the footsteps so to speak of his predecessor, Li Tung Wei, and continues to talk about state-to-state relationships, creating the impression of perhaps not formal independence, but a greater sense of its own nationhood in Taiwan, and the mainland Chinese become increasingly irate, tension builds up, and then they start popping in the missiles.

So you could say the new president of Taiwan started it.

Harry Rowen: Now you're giving a hard case, which is of course the most difficult--that's why presidents have a hard job. You'd have to make a judgment. Was it really totally unprovoked? And therefore, the mainland acted. Well, that would be one set of circumstances. But if it's something like you described or maybe more so, then that's a different set of circumstances, and the president and the Congress, for goodness sake, would have to be centrally involved in this, would have to decide, okay, do we want to get into the middle of this one? Or was that one, they went too far on Taiwan?

Peter Robinson: That the Taiwanese themselves went too far?

Harry Rowen: That they went too far, and therefore, we're not going to do it.

Peter Robinson: Mike, how would you recommend, if you're advising the new president, Gore or Bradley or whoever it turns out to be, Harry very skillfully set up the judgment the new president would have to make. What judgment would you advise him to make? How would you advise him to answer the question?

Michel Oksenburg: Well, I think you'd have to specify the context. I think it's very difficult to go through a hypothetical contingency without knowing the total context. And that's significant. Because it means that in Taiwan's mind, there should be a slight--and I would emphasize the word "slight"--element of doubt as to the extent to which they can count on the United States. They don't have a blank check from us to do anything they want.

Peter Robinson: This is not France or Great Britain. This is not a member of the NATO alliance. We want them--

Michel Oksenburg: On the other hand, I would also stress that China must understand that if it acts vigorously, uses military force to try and intimidate Taiwan and there has been no provocation from Taiwan, the United States is going to come to Taiwan's assistance. And China should have absolutely no doubt about it.

Peter Robinson: In defending Taiwan, just how far should we be willing to go?

Big Trouble in Little China

Peter Robinson: William F. Buckley wrote recently, he posed a question: Do we favor running the risk of nuclear war in order to preserve Taiwan's independence? My own--that is, Bill Buckley's--my own answer would be yes. But I solicit debate on the point.

Should we view an independent free market democratic Taiwan as vital to our strategic interests? Now there is a parallel that comes to mind. In the Middle East, which is a pretty messy place, there is one nation that is more or less free market, and unambiguously democratic, and that is Israel. And we say, we need Israel there. It is undoubtedly part of our strategic interest to defend Israel. Why not Taiwan?

Harry Rowen: This goes to the values of the American people and deep feelings, which vary, and different people will have different attitudes on these matters. I think it's difficult to really make the case that free market, a free independent Taiwan is vital to American interests. I just find it not an easy case--

Peter Robinson: Why not?

Harry Rowen: Well, I was about to say that. Because I think we attach a lot of importance to democratic values. The question is, if you state it as vital, taking the word "vital", that means--

Peter Robinson: It means we'll risk a nuclear bomb on Honolulu.

Harry Rowen: --it might mean willing to pay any price. Well, I don't believe we should pay "any price".

David Liu: To me, I would say that to all people in Taiwan, another term gets involved: credibility. United States credibility. In the past 50 years, we didn't do anything wrong. We're a good student. We learned democracy and all the international experience. We are a very successful model.

Peter Robinson: David raises a very good point. In 50 years, I believe there is an argument that 50 years ago, when Chiang Kai Shek decamped to Taiwan, and set up the government as it was then, it was a not altogether appealing operation. Pretty tough government and so forth.

But in the course of 50 years, Taiwan has become democratic, free market, a nation of very limited national resources has become rich, capital rich, investing all over Asia, one of the engines of economic growth in one of the most important regions of the world. Can't we do something to reward these folks?

Harry Rowen: Well, we're doing a great deal.

Peter Robinson: Okay, what are we doing?

Harry Rowen: Well, we're selling them arms, and we are above all trying to create and sustain a security environment in the Asia-Pacific region that best promotes the peaceful prosperous democratic future of Taiwan.

And that is done through the forward deployment of American forces in the region. It is done by maintaining robust alliances with Japan and Korea. And it is also advanced by our having a constructive relationship with China itself, so that China has less incentive to deal with Taiwan in a military fashion.

Peter Robinson: The mainland has a 65 to 4 advantage over Taiwan in submarines, and a 4,500 to 400 numerical advantage in aircraft. Are we selling Taiwan enough hardware?

Harry Rowen: Oh, I think probably so. I haven't looked at in in detail, but I'd guess so.

David Liu: I don't think it's enough.

Peter Robinson: You don't think so?

David Liu: Defensive weapons are very hard to acquire. And in the international market, only one resources you can get is from United States.

Peter Robinson: So you would like us--again, we're pretending that you're speaking as a representative of Taiwan--you'd like us to sell you much more?

David Liu: Yes. In World War II, that's what Winston Churchill said, give us the tools--

Peter Robinson: Give us the tools and we'll finish the job.

David Liu: And we'll finish the job. We'll defend ourselves.

Peter Robinson: What has stopped China from trying to take Taiwan by force so far?

Stir-Frying Up Trouble

Peter Robinson: With this immense military advantage that the mainland now has over the Republic of China, Taiwan, why hasn't it already taken it back?

Harry Rowen: That presumption is wrong.

Peter Robinson: It is?

Harry Rowen: It does not have that advantage. It might some day. It certainly doesn't have it today.

Peter Robinson: So they really couldn't stage a successful invasion today if they wanted to?

Harry Rowen: I believe not. They couldn't do it.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Michel Oksenburg: The issue at the present time, as both Harry and David know, is the buildup by the mainland of missiles across from Taiwan. This is now the new and very worrisome dimension of the Taiwan-mainland military balance.

And there I think the need for increased military sales to Taiwan, and possibly extending our theater defense missile programs, to include under our control, I'd argue, Taiwan, is something that is going to have to be considered if the mainland doesn't put a cap on these missiles.

Peter Robinson: You'd favor it, if the mainland doesn't, you'd favor that?

Michel Oksenburg: Yes, I would.

David Liu: I agree that the TMD is very important to us.

Peter Robinson: You are the technical experts, TMD is?

Harry Rowen: Theater Missile Defense.

Peter Robinson: You've actually told me something here, I didn't really imagine that, learning something on television, I really didn't know that you would consider the mainland too weak to take Taiwan at the moment?

Harry Rowen: Oh, sure, in terms of invasion. But this missile threat could be the functional equivalent of--with enough missiles and used in certain ways to make life impossible.

Peter Robinson: Disrupting the shipping lanes and so forth.

Harry Rowen: So a theater missile defense, there's only one qualification there: we have to develop something that works. It's not clear--

Peter Robinson: Right, we don't have that yet.

Michel Oksenburg: We don't have that yet.

Harry Rowen: See, that really raises why the diplomacy is so important. Because in the long run Taiwan is not going to be able to be secure only through its own military might, and even our own military might. It's the broader strategic context--

Peter Robinson: You are presuming, you are projecting a trajectory of growth for the mainland, a pretty rapid one.

Harry Rowen: No, I didn't use the word "rapid". But I used the words, over a period of time.

Peter Robinson: Couple of decades?

Harry Rowen: Over a period of a couple of decades. So the real challenge is more diplomatic than military. It is how to create a new security architecture in the Western Pacific in which China has minimal incentive to damage Taiwan, and Taiwan has, I think, the international space which it legitimately seeks.

And we're dealing with a longer-term issue that is going to be very difficult for the United States to manage, but certainly the next president of the United States is going to have to manage this issue exquisitely, and I might add, not by the United States alone. Because we have to take into account Japan's attitudes on this matter as well.

We can't go out there and defend Taiwan without Japan.

Peter Robinson: Japan is basically pro-Taiwan?

Harry Rowen: No. Oh, no, no, no. Deeply divided over the issue.

Peter Robinson: Japan used to have the island itself--oh, the history gets complicated?

Harry Rowen: That's exactly right.

Harry Rowen: You want to know how to think about this in a fundamental way?

Peter Robinson: Yes, please.

Harry Rowen: I've been exposed to this many times. The Chinese mainland sort of buildup is longer term. It's inexorable. It will become more and more powerful relative to Taiwan. That's built in.

Meanwhile, I believe, hope certainly, and think it's likely, that there will be political change, possibly profound political change, inside of China itself. Now if you have this growing power on the one hand, and on the other hand it's becoming a more democratized country, doesn't mean it will be unworrisome, totally safe, but it's basically the only way out.

Peter Robinson: Harry's hopeful that China will become more democratic. Do our guests really believe that that is likely to happen?

No Mandarin is an Island

Peter Robinson Harry, I want to push you a little on this point, on this distinction between being merely hopeful, and seeing signs that it's likely to happen. You believe then that free markets will tend to create pressures--freer markets will tend to create pressures in return for freer politics?

Harry Rowen: Every country that has gotten to the income level that China is likely to have in the next 20 years has become at least partly democratic.

Peter Robinson: Including Taiwan itself.

Harry Rowen: Of course including Taiwan itself.

Peter Robinson: And you buy that trajectory?

Michel Oksenburg: I think--well, I'd say a lot is unknown. But there is enough reason for hope that what we should do is play for time while keeping an insurance policy in case our hope proves unwarranted. And the insurance policy is the American military posture in the region and maintaining a sufficient defense on Taiwan, so that should the mainland decide to go another way, the cost would be too great.

Peter Robinson: Now, let me say--assume that what these two gentlemen just said is being said in the White House in the next administration. Does that cause you to sleep better at night? Is that the way you want Americans to be thinking or talking?

David Liu: In Taiwan it's about 40 percent or maybe you know higher than 40 percent of people, they agree to maintain the status quo, at a later time, get more leverage...

Peter Robinson: Harry and Mike have both said in effect that time is against you, that relative to Taiwan mainland is bound to become more powerful.

Harry Rowen: Well, in that dimension, but finish the thought.

Peter Robinson: All right, you finish it for me.

Harry Rowen: During the same period of time there is a good chance that there will be political change on the mainland that people on Taiwan would favor.

Peter Robinson: Oh, right.

David Liu: I would say that, in our view, in Taiwan's view, I would say that time is in favor to us. Because I agree with what Harry says, because once the economy gets more prosperous it will lead to democracy.

Peter Robinson: And that, may I ask, is that in effect the prevailing view on Taiwan, that the mainland is likely to become more democratic as it becomes richer?

David Liu: I would say yes.

Peter Robinson: You would say yes?

David Liu: Yes, because everything you have to think about the positive side. Don't forget that in Taiwan direct investment from Taiwan to China more than--I would say about $5 billion.

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, let me close it out by asking for a prediction. Ten years from now, 2010, will Taiwan be governed from Taipei or from Beijing?


Michel Oksenburg: Taipei.

Peter Robinson: Taipei. David?

David Liu: I say Taipei.

Peter Robinson: Taipei?

Harry Rowen: Taipei.

Peter Robinson: All right, a quarter century from now, Harry, Taipei or Beijing?

Harry Rowen: Very likely Beijing.

Peter Robinson: Beijing. David?

David Liu: Still Taipei.

Peter Robinson: Still Taipei. Mike?

Michel Oksenburg: I don't have a sufficiently clairvoyant view to be able to say. Because there are so many--

Peter Robinson: Oh take a walk on the wild side.

Michel Oksenburg: The wild side would be, within 25 years the two will have reached an accommodation between them that won't let you know whether it's from Beijing or Taipei.

Peter Robinson: Oh, really, something on the Hong Kong model?

Michel Oksenburg: No, I don't think the Hong Kong model is applicable. But I think we are seeing...

Peter Robinson: Why not, by the way? That's worth exploring for a moment.

Michel Oksenburg: Well, because among other things, China has stationed military force in Hong Kong. The history of Hong Kong is different. The size of the place; the relations with us. I don't like the use of one model applied to another.

But I think an accommodation between the two over a longer period of time is possible. And it will be uniquely Chinese, in keeping with their tradition.

Peter Robinson: Meaning unfathomable to somebody like me?

Michel Oksenburg: I would dare say.

Peter Robinson: All right. Mike, David and Harry. Thank you very much.

Just one question underlay our entire discussion: will Taiwan and mainland China grow closer together, or farther apart?

I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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