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U.S. 'one-China' policy leaves Taiwan with little hope for independence

The Clinton administration's fence-sitting over Taiwan's independence from the People's Republic of China makes no political sense either internationally or domestically. In the real world, the United States has no choice but to give up any and all of its pretensions of supporting Taiwan's right to determine its own destiny on any scale. Yet the U.S. continues to toss Taiwan bones of solidarity. Why deceive the Taiwanese as well as the American people with promises that cannot be honored?

In a lecture Tuesday, Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg claimed that the United States will remain committed to its longstanding "one-China" policy. However, he added, any solution to the Taiwan question must be "acceptable to the Taiwanese people."


Let's be realistic. Only in the most perfect of worlds could the two faces of this policy be reconciled — the world in which Taiwan actually votes to join the PRC. What about the less perfect and more likely world in which Taiwan steadfastly insists on independence? The White House is strangely confident that this will not happen. "We believe it is not in the interest of the people of Taiwan to move towards independence," Steinberg said.

The Taiwanese appear to believe otherwise. They have already voiced their opinion in the matter by electing a pro-independence president despite threats from China that long-term recalcitrance on the one-China issue could provoke a military response. Thus it is quite possible that Taiwan will refuse to cave in to China, especially if it somehow perceives American support for Taiwanese self-determination. The U.S. would then have to choose between the hypocrisy of ignoring the will of the Taiwanese, and the inanity of war with China.

It doesn't make sense for the U.S. to maintain its solidarity with Taiwanese democracy come hell, high water or Chinese military action. In all likelihood, the U.S. will support Taiwanese self-determination only if the Taiwanese determine themselves to be part of the PRC. If Taiwan makes a democratic decision to remain fully independent of China, and China responds with force, as it has said it would, then the United States will clearly be forced to ignore that democratic decision. So much for finding a solution "acceptable to the Taiwanese people."

Nor does it make sense to cater to Taiwan's interest in democracy as a domestic political play. No veneer of respect for Taiwanese sovereignty will blind American public opinion to the hard realism that America must adopt in its relations with China and Taiwan. In the end, Taiwan will not get what it wants, assuming what it wants is full independence from China. Choice, democratic or otherwise, implies multiple options, and Taiwan has only one in the long run. Whether Taiwan is stubborn or dissembling toward China, its defenseless position will be fairly evident to any American.

Naturally, the question of Taiwan's relationship to China has no answers as black-and-white as "full independence" and "full assimilation." The United States can assist both parties in finding some point between those two extremes that each can live with. However, the U.S. should not give Taiwan the impression that it has much leverage in negotiations with China. The very most that China is willing to give may be less than Taiwan finds "acceptable." But Taiwan will be powerless to do anything about that, and we will be unwilling. Melissa Waage is a politics major from Johnson City, Tenn. She can be reached at