Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Walks a High Wire in China-Taiwan Feud Beijing's Brinkmanship Tests US Commitment to Island

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Walks a High Wire in China-Taiwan Feud Beijing's Brinkmanship Tests US Commitment to Island

Article excerpt

BY dispatching one of the largest United States naval forces to the Far East since the Vietnam War, President Clinton is attempting to walk a middle path between a clear commitment to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion and caving in to China's increasingly strong-armed diplomacy in the Pacific.

The first option would plunge the US into the middle of what Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based public policy research institute, describes as "an internal, unfinished civil war." It would also cost China's cooperation on international issues important to the US and its allies, including nuclear disarmament.

The second option - walking away - would undermine America's standing as the preeminent Pacific power. It would open Clinton to election-year attacks by Republicans who are now criticizing the longtime US policy of "strategic ambiguity," under which the US refuses to disclose how it would react to an invasion of Taiwan. "If we didn't intervene it would be an important signal to the Japanese that they could no longer rely so much on the US," says Ralph Clough, who teaches Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "It would also affect Hong Kong. The dynamic economic development of the whole area would be affected."

Mr. Clinton's weekend decision to deploy two aircraft carrier battle groups close to Taiwan has two other objectives. The first is to reassure US allies, especially Japan and South Korea, who depend on the US for their security.

The second goal is to convince the GOP-controlled Congress in Washington that he intends to remain fully engaged in ensuring stability in a region of crucial economic and strategic importance.

The US moves follow China's decision to stage live-fire air and sea exercises near Taiwan through March 20. They began last week when China test-fired three missiles off Taiwan and escalated March 13 with the use of live ammunition. The maneuvers are the latest phase of an effort to pressure Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to abandon what Beijing decries as a campaign for independence.

Why China frets

Mr. Lee is the leading candidate in presidential elections set for March 23. Beijing worries that with a solid electoral mandate, Lee will step up efforts to raise Taiwan's global profile. Beijing has considered Taiwan a renegade province since Chinese nationalist leaders fled there after Communists took control of the mainland in 1949. Under a 1972 US-China accord, Beijing agreed that reunification will occur peacefully.

Administration officials do not believe that the Chinese war games are a prelude to an invasion of the island. Even so, they say the two carrier battle groups are being deployed to dissuade both sides from taking actions that might increase the potential for conflict. …

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