LOS ANGELES ― The Taiwanese are being permitted to buy a $6 billion bundle of military goodies from the United States, but, says the Obama Administration, they are not to get their hands on the hot new jet fighters they want (measly upgrades only). Even so, from across the inherently-tense Taiwan Strait, China is in official huffy protest, allegedly angry that the U.S. is selling Taiwan anything at all.
At the same time, the governing Beijing elite are trying to keep a composed public face. Well short of seeming wimpy to the home crowd, it nonetheless is demonstrating scant appetite for showy preliminaries to World War Three. And for that, of course, the entire world is grateful. Thus would include the incumbent Taiwan administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, now campaigning for re-election on its policy of engagement, not confrontation, with the mainland.
Please note that it is not just China but also the United Nations and the vast majority of governments around the world that do not formally recognize Taiwan as an independent government. But that does not mean anyone wishes to see it swallowed whole by the People’s Liberation Army. Or that it doesn’t function as a separate entity.
Hence, America’s history of take-away-and give-back with Taiwan will remain a substantial thorn in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship for the foreseeable future. And so we have today a story that illustrates what is really going on behind the scenes.
It concerns an official of the Chinese government I met some years ago. He was a diplomat assigned to the West Coast of the United States. This relatively young man was also (I knew…) a member of the secretive Ministry of State Security.
I had no problem with that. All over the globe, representatives of many governments, assuming positions like economic or cultural attaché, sometimes do double duty as secret agents. Why should China be any different? Besides, this gentleman was charming and his dedication to his homeland unparalleled. At one point he asked me point-blank something like: ``Do you really think the American people care enough about Taiwan to go to war to defend it if it ever came to that?”
I knew that question came from deep within the bowels of Chinese state security, and that my answer, whatever it was, would get back to those bowels: so I offered an answer as honest as possible. I said:
I have no idea.
However, I did add: The American character adores underdogs (think Kuwait, summer 1990, Iraq’s invasion … the U.S. public solidly behind President George Bush Sr., not just because of oil). Think … oh, well, as just a wild example: Taiwan under attack from the overbearing China giant.
I think he got it: This peculiar Americanism could not be ignored.
I also think he agreed with me that the thorny Taiwan issue will not fatally disrupt the evolving, historically pivotal and potentially volatile China-U.S. relationship as long as the professional foreign-policy establishments on both sides of the Pacific are permitted to keep the issue under wraps. In this spirit, the kind of quiet trans-Pacific diplomacy between Beijing and Washington that necessarily preceded the recent halfway-house arms-deal decision needs to be massively applauded. In fact, the argument could be made that the diplomats involved in sorting this issue out again ought to be put up for a collective Nobel Peace Prize (some past awardees have accomplished a lot less…).
The pros on both sides well realize that the safest ground is a middle ground of foggy ambivalence. This means keeping the issue (1) on the back burner, (2) under the radar, (3) out of the spotlight … well, all over-writing aside, you get the idea.
Ordinarily, low-keying things is not easy with high-profile foreign policy issues, especially if you are President of the United States ― and even if you are President of the People’s Republic of China. For in this age of social media and all manner of hard-to-suppress media technology, the flash-point mood of the public can quickly become the titanic twitter of the moment, no matter the structure of the political system.
So, keeping the Taiwan issue from metastasizing into a mass issue won’t be easy, in America or China. In the U.S., all major foreign policy decisions are invariably Presidential decisions, as the late, great Theodore Sorensen used to put it to his graduate-students at Princeton. He’d say something like: ``Gentlemen, the Secretary of State might offer good advice or bad advice. But it is the President’s decision that is decisive for the big ones.”
So here’s another related story: In 1996 the angry Chinese created a fuss with a flurry of missile volleys deliberately aimed well off target ― but still in the general direction of Taiwan. The U.S. responded by dispatching an aircraft carrier group. Military advisors urged then President Bill Clinton to permit the carrier to steam into the Strait between the island and the mainland in a determined show of U.S. force.
That such an incendiary move did not happen was due to the intervention of wiser heads. They included the-then U.S. Ambassador to China, James Sasser, a good old-boy from Tennessee. In a rare use of personal privilege, the former senator personally telephoned Clinton at the White House to warn that such a maneuver would be viewed by China as the intervention of an imperialist bully in what Beijing regarded as an internal matter.
Sasser was right. And Clinton ― bless him ― did listen. The carrier group halted outside the gates of the Strait; then, the Chinese high command un-cocked their weapons; and the crisis wound down. But it was a close call ― closer than is generally known.
What will happen if a similar scenario were to arise again? It’s the job of the diplomats on both sides of the Pacific to somehow see that it doesn’t. Blessed be the brave warriors of under-the-radar ambiguity. And applaud the fog of non-war.
Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs at Loyola Marymount University, and the author of the just-released ``Conversations with Thaksin,” the third book in the best-selling Giants of Asia series. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.