Washington Message To
Taiwan: Lessen Tensions
With China
STRATFOR.COM Global Intelligence Update

The United States has issued an unofficial ultimatum to Taiwan's presidential contenders: provoke Beijing any further and risk a loss of U.S. support. By doing so, Washington has announced that it wants no crisis during the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign. More importantly, Washington fears that Beijing may turn up the pressure against Taiwan to release China's economic and social tensions. While it won't abandon Taipei, Washington will pull all the diplomatic levers at its disposal to keep island politicians from provoking China.
On Dec. 15, Richard Bush, managing director of the American Institute in Taiwan, sent a very clear message to the frontrunners in the upcoming March elections. "If the new Taiwan administration's policies converge with our own interests, then there will be no problem. If they do not, then we will discuss the differences in a spirit of friendship," Bush said. Bush added that the United States will adhere to the one-China policy, which views Taiwan as a Chinese province.
Bush's statement was a friendly warning from Washington's diplomatic arm into Taipei. Bush was clearly warning Taiwan's presidential candidates: If they antagonize China during their upcoming campaigns, they risk U.S. support for Taiwan. The statement revealed two important elements in the U.S. position. First, Washington's interests demand continued peace in the Taiwan Strait. Second, Washington sees China as increasingly cantankerous and unstable, ready to pounce if provoked.
The United States has many reasons to anticipate an escalation of tensions during the run-up to Taiwan's March 18 elections. The most compelling may be historical precedent. Just before Taiwan's 1996 elections, China launched missiles into its Taiwan's coastal waters, prompting the United States to speed two carrier battle groups into the region to defuse the crisis.
In recent months, President Lee Teng-hui has revived antagonism by declaring that Taiwan has "special state-to-state" relations with China; China promptly took this as an affront to its official one- China policy. The president's statement has re-popularized the notion of autonomy for Taiwan. Now all three presidential contenders have at least stated that Taipei needs to negotiate with Beijing on equal footing. [ ]
Bush's statements make clear that the United States is reluctant to see cross-straits tension escalate. Both domestic and international factors determine this stance. First, 2000 is an election year in the United States as well, and China has already become a hot topic because of espionage and campaign finance scandals. If the United States is involved in a military confrontation with China, China will be the determinant issue in the American presidential campaign.
In economic terms as well, the United States does not want tension to burn the bridges that connect U.S. business interests to the mainland. Only weeks ago, Washington's 13-year diplomatic initiative to open China's markets to the world culminated in the signing of a bilateral trade agreement which will help China become a member of the World Trade Organization. The United States doesn't want a conflict in the strait to trip up the agreement before investors reap the economic benefits of access to China.
The United States has yet another reason to want peace in the Taiwan Strait. The waters between China and Taiwan are the most important shipping route in the region; cross-straits tension could halt the flow of trade through the region, potentially endangering Asia's faltering export-driven economic recovery. During the 1996 imbroglio, shipping was disturbed for over two weeks. Japan was forced to divert one-third of its ships from the area.
But it appears Washington senses that China is on edge. Beijing could very easily respond to provocation with hostility. There are some obvious reasons for this concern. Later this month, China will regain control over Macau, freeing China to focus efforts on Taiwan, its last unresolved territorial issue. Chinese President Jiang Zemin pointed this out himself after his Dec. 10 summit with Russian President Boris Yelstin.
Washington may finally be sensing as well that confrontation with Taiwan could be a handy release valve for the pressures building up within China. A nationalistic campaign to recover what is viewed as a renegade province could successfully distract the Chinese people from the economic malaise and dissatisfaction that have triggered over 60,000 protests this year. China's instability has become increasingly apparent during the past year. The government has lead a crackdown on Falun Gong and other organized "threats" to stability, while methodically sealing off its borders.
In a full-blown crisis, the United States would probably not abandon Taiwan outright. Strategically, the island is too essential to U.S. policy in the region, which centers on containing China. The waters around Taiwan are the gateway into the South China Sea, an important shipping route and the link to the Koreas and Japan. If China were to control these waters, it could effectively control the region. But Washington is clearly going to do what it can to dampen the sentiments that favor autonomy or independence for Taiwan.
(c) 1999, Stratfor, Inc.
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