Analysis & Opinions - Taipei Times

Taiwan and Fear in US-China Ties

| January 14, 2007


This op-ed was reprinted in The Miami Herald as "Will China Dominate the World" on February 6, 2008.

Opinion polls indicate that one-third of Americans believe that China will "soon dominate the world," while nearly half view China's emergence as a "threat to world peace." In turn, many Chinese fear that the US will not accept their "peaceful rise." Americans and Chinese must avoid such exaggerated fears. Maintaining good US-China relations will be a key determinant of global stability in this century.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the bilateral relationship is the belief that conflict is inevitable. Throughout history, whenever a rising power creates fear among its neighbors and other great powers, that fear becomes a cause of conflict. In such circumstances, seemingly small events can trigger an unforeseen and disastrous chain reaction.

Today, the greatest prospect of a destabilizing incident lies in the Taiwan Strait.

The US does not challenge China's sovereignty over Taiwan, but it wants a peaceful settlement that will maintain Taiwan's democratic institutions. In Taiwan, there is a growing sense of national identity, but a sharp division between pragmatists of the pan-blue alliance, who realize that geography will require a compromise with the mainland, and the ruling pan-green alliance, which aspires in varying degrees to achieve independence.

Some observers fear that President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) will seek a pretext to prevent defeat in March's presidential elections. He is advocating a referendum on whether Taiwan should join the UN, which China views as provocative. Chen has replied that it is China "that is acting provocatively today."

Washington is concerned. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters that "we think that Taiwan's referendum to apply to the UN under the name `Taiwan' is a provocative policy. It unnecessarily raises tensions in the Taiwan Strait and it promises no real benefits for the people of Taiwan on the international stage."

She also reiterated the administration policy opposing unilateral threats by either side that change the status quo.

The same day, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized China for curtailing US naval visits to China over arms sales to Taiwan. Gates said he told the Chinese that the sales were consistent with past policy and that "as long as they continued to build up their forces on their side of the Taiwan Strait, we would continue to give Taiwan the resources necessary to defend itself."

Gates added, however, that despite China's rising defense budget, "I don't consider China an enemy, and I think there are opportunities for continued cooperation in a number of areas."

In principle, cross-strait tensions need not lead to conflict. With increasing change in China and growing economic and social contacts across the Strait, it should be possible to find a formula that allows the Taiwanese to maintain their market economy and democratic system without a placard at the UN.

The US has tried to allow for this evolution by stressing two themes: no independence for Taiwan and no use of force by China. But given the danger that could grow out of political competition in Taiwan or impatience in the People's Liberation Army, the US would be wise to encourage more active contacts and negotiations between the two sides.

The US has a broad national interest in maintaining good relations with China, as well as a specific human rights interest in protecting Taiwan's democracy. But the US does not have a national interest in helping Taiwan become a sovereign country with a seat at the UN, and efforts by some Taiwanese to do so present the greatest danger of a miscalculation that could create enmity between the US and China. Some Chinese already suspect the US of seeking an independent Taiwan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" against a future Chinese enemy. They are wrong, but such suspicions can feed a climate of enmity.

If the US treats China as an enemy, it will ensure future enmity. While we cannot be sure how China will evolve, it makes no sense to foreclose the prospect of a better future. Washington's policy combines economic integration with a hedge against future uncertainty.

The US-Japan security alliance means China cannot play a "Japan card." But while such hedging is natural in world politics, modesty is important for both sides. If the overall climate is one of distrust, what looks like a hedge to one side can look like a threat to the other.

There is no need for the US and China to go to war. Both must take care that an incident over Taiwan does not lead in that direction, and avoid letting exaggerated fears create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S..“Taiwan and Fear in US-China Ties.” Taipei Times, January 14, 2007.