Don't Panic! December 18 2003

Your war questions answered

What is the China/Taiwan crisis about and why is the U.S. involved?

Not to be confused with '80s U.K. New Wavers China Crisis (who got the U.S. involved via American producer and Steely Dan co-principal Walter Becker), the current China crisis is about the status of Taiwan relative to mainland China. Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian wants to have a national referendum in March to decide how it feels about China pointing ballistic missiles at it (I'm no psychic, but I'm gonna go ahead and guess that Taiwan's voters don't much like having Chinese missiles pointed at them).

Not coincidentally, the referendum will be held on the same day as Taiwan's presidential elections. President Chen has timed the referendum so that his supporters, who tend to be strong opponents of meddling from China, have one more reason to come to the polls and, uh, I don't know, maybe vote for him, too. That Chen's a clever one, eh?

The prospect of Taiwan referenda of any sort, be it about Chinese missiles or the peanut content of Kung Pao, pisses China off to no end. China thinks that Taiwan is actually part of China and therefore can't have national referenda. To understand why China thinks that, we need to go back in time a little.

After Imperial/Fascist Japan lost World War II and abandoned China in favor of peace and Hello Kitty stationery, China fought a civil war. The government of China at the time was ruled by the Nationalists (they were also called the Kuomintang). Their not-so-civil civil war opponents were the Mao-led Communists (also called the Red Menace and Godless Commie Pinko Bastards).

With their handsome Mao jackets and their adorable little red books, the Commies whooped Nationalist ass. In 1949, the Nationalists fled China to Taiwan. Mainland China became the People's Republic of China and Taiwan the Republic of China. Both sides claimed to be the legit ruler of all of it, even though the R.O.C. consisted solely of little ol' Taiwan.

We didn't like Commies, so we protected Taiwan from invasion by the mainland. We also played along with the sham about how Taiwan's government was actually the government of all of China. It wasn't until 1971 that the U.N. gave its Chinese seat to mainland China. In 1979 we officially recognized the Commies as the official, if undesirable, government of China.

So why can't China and Taiwan be two separate countries? After all, Taiwan is a democracy, our eighth-largest trading partner, and a purchaser of quite a few American weapons. Well, China is big, strong, nuclear-armed, and doesn't want it that way. We're not willing to pay the costs (military, economic, loss of life) to support Taiwan's full, legal independence. And China considers Taiwan a renegade province. China says that us telling them to let Taiwan go is like them telling Washington to let Alabama go. Wait a minute, that's not such a bad ...

Our policy is that we will defend Taiwan if China attacks it, but Taiwan shouldn't go for all-out independence. We want them to get back together via peaceful, non-coercive negotiations. The policy is often referred to as two-states, one China. Maintaining it requires a lot of subtle/convoluted thinking and speaking. Subtlety not being one of his strengths, Bush caused a big hoo-ha in 2001 when he blurted out that the U.S. would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan from China — a statement interpreted as a strong, pro-Taiwan policy shift. After a chat with his people about the subtlety thing, Bush corrected himself later the same day.

Our problem right now is that the Taiwan referendum is coming at a time when Bush needs China's cooperation on some important issues. We need China to help us stop North Korea's nuclear program. We also need China's cooperation to help shrink our enormous trade deficit. So for now, anyway, Bush is selling out our democratic buddies in Taiwan a bit to curry favor — wait, that's Indian — to kowtow to the big bad Chinese dictatorship. And it's happening at a time when Bush is giving high-minded speeches about the importance of democracy around the world. Go figure, a politician compromising his declared principles to increase his chances for re-election. I'm shocked.


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