Thursday, March 15, 2007

Loch Ness and the Taiwan Strait

Loch Ness and the Taiwan Strait have something in common. They are both home to elusive, difficult to see or photograph creatures that excite all who come into contact with them, and exasperate the duly constituted authorities, even though they agree that their continued existence is good for the locals.....

John Tkacik published an excellent piece in the Taipei Times today outlining some of the issues regarding Taiwan's homegrown version of Nessie, the Status Quo. Tkacik, a longtime supporter of the island who grew up in Taiwan and went to international school in Taipei as a wee lad, has very interesting comments on Washington's policy drift (the piece is top-drawer and should be read in its entirety):

Beyond that third point, Kelly had to admit he was "not sure" he "very easily could define ... `our' one China policy." Nonetheless he continued, "I can tell you what it is not." It is not the "one China" principle that Beijing suggests, and it may not be the definition that some would have in Taiwan. Alas, that is as close as a State Department official has ever come to defining "our one China policy" in private or in public. Nor, as it happens, has any US official ever "defined" the "status quo as we define it."

Which raises two core questions for US policy: First, what are the "use of force" and the "threat of force" and what, exactly, is Taiwan's status, as far as the US is concerned? And second, what is the US going to do if either side does something the US "does not support?"

The fact is that Washington has no answers to these core questions -- either publicly or in confidential policy documents circulated among decisionmakers. Hence, Washington's political leaders should not be surprised when Washington's Delphic pronouncements are interpreted arbitrarily in both Beijing and Taipei.

As Tkacik notes, as a result of Washington's lack of a clear public or private policy, Beijing just does whatever it damn well pleases. The antidote to Beijing's growing awareness of Washington's weakness and vacillation is a clear statement of policy in response to Beijing's recent changes in the status quo, such as the missile buildup and the revolting Anti-Succession Law:

The US government must also understand that so long as Taiwan refuses to accept Beijing's sovereignty, Beijing's long-term strategy will be to isolate Taiwan in the international community to the most extreme extent possible.

Thus, when China gets obstreperous on the Taiwan issue, White House and Cabinet spokespersons should publicly articulate the common-sense stance that "the United States does not recognize or accept that China has any right whatsoever under international law to use or threaten the use of force against democratic Taiwan." (This has the advantage of actually being US policy, but it has never been stated in public.)

In background to journalists and reporters, US "senior officials" could explain that even a Taiwanese declaration of independence would just be "words on paper" and would not change any country's behavior or affect China's security posture? This wording would make it clear that the US does not now recognize, and never has recognized, China's territorial claims to Taiwan.

I should add that one consequence of the policy drift in Washington is that without clear guidance from policymakers at the top, the US State Department is for practical purposes increasingly adopting a pro-Beijing position on the Taiwan question. After all, Beijing is the only one with a clearly defined position: Taiwan is mine Mine MINE! Almost by default, State has defined the status quo as "whatever is acceptable to Beijing." It goes without saying that this lack of will or leverage in our East Asian policy is yet another pernicious effect of our criminal, and criminally stupid, war in Iraq.

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