The dramas in April over the downed U.S. reconnaissance plane and the sale of arms to Taiwan have revealed a burgeoning American hawkishness toward China. Centrists have joined conservatives in blaming America for being soft on the Communists and weak in supporting democratic Taiwan. But this growing fashion for fulmination is misguided, for two reasons: First, Beijing isn't being belligerent out of the blue; and second, selling Taiwan our highest-tech weapons is more likely to hurt Taiwan's democracy than to help it.
According to the expanding chorus of China hard-liners in Washington, the Bush administration performed a craven cave-in to bullying by an increasingly dangerous China when the United States expressed regret over the spy plane collision. Furthermore, according to these hard-liners, the administration executed an abject betrayal of democracy when it opted not to sell Aegis-class destroyers to Taiwan.
In fact, however, both moves were smart. They were also defensible on liberal principle and in terms of protecting Taiwan. Ironically, it may be up to liberal Democrats to point out the wisdom of the Bush team's moderate approach. What's needed is a way forward on China-and-Taiwan policy that is based on a nuanced reading of recent events.
Both sides in the 50-year China-Taiwan standoff are deeply entrenched. In 1949 the Chinese Nationalists (the KMT) lost the civil war against the Communists and retreated to the island of Taiwan. Since then, the KMT and the Communists have each aimed to complete the war by conquering the other's territory and creating "one China." For the KMT in Taiwan, retaking the Chinese mainland has become an increasingly unrealistic goal. For the Communists, taking Taiwan by force remains an option. The United States is rightly committed to ensuring that this option is never exercised.
In the early 1990s, though, it was Taiwan that decided to reach out to China. KMT President Lee Teng-hui declared an official end to the war and sought dialogue with the Communists. China responded favorably, and in 1992 both sides agreed that at least the concept of "one China" was potentially valid. On that basis, semi-official talks between China and Taiwan began.
On the Chinese side, Deng Xiaoping had set a less belligerent tone in the 1980s with his endorsement of economic liberalization. Although Tiananmen Square revealed that Deng had no qualms about the use of force at home, Deng also established a policy of avoiding conflict abroad as a requirement for China's internal stability. Despite his reputation as a militarist, Deng de-emphasized the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and reduced its budget.
As Deng lay dying in 1995, his successor, President Jiang Zemin, lacked legitimacy with the PLA. To strengthen his own civilian rule by further sidelining the army, Jiang made a bid for peaceful progress on the Taiwan question, issuing an eight-point proposal for eventual reunification. Jiang's plan offered dialogue and wide-ranging social and economic exchanges, and he staked his credibility on the overture by publicizing it widely. Within months, Taiwan's Lee Teng-hui responded with a six-point proposal of his own and agreed to talks, though he demanded that China renounce the use of force against the island.
Negotiations would probably have followed, but the KMT's dictatorship in Taiwan was under increasing pressure from a native Taiwanese democracy movement. In particular, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) eschewed the KMT's dream of a reunified China, advocating Taiwanese independence instead. By 1995 the KMT was facing Taiwan's first presidential election. To win, Lee Teng-hui had to draw support away from the pro-independence DPP. So he dropped his "one China" reunification rhetoric and sought more recognition for Taiwan on the international stage. That led to Lee's unprecedented visit to the United States in May 1995, to speak …