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Op-Ed

China and Taiwan: An Offer Washington Ought to Consider

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Taiwan?s top envoy to the United States, Chen Chien-jen, made a remarkable public revelation late last month. In remarks before Taiwan?s legislature, he stated that during the October summit meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin, Jiang offered a deal involving the withdrawal or freezing of China?s short-range ballistic missiles deployed opposite Taiwan in return for U.S. restraint in its arms sales to Taiwan.

China has viewed its missile phalanx as its most effective coercive tool against Taiwan, and used it to bracket the island with warning shots in 1995 and 1996. This prompted the United States to implicitly threaten force in return by deploying aircraft carriers to the region. Thus Beijing?s offer—which a senior Chinese official has confirmed, according to a Washington Post report (IHT, Dec. 11)—could be of great significance.

But was the offer just a political gesture or a tactical ploy? One thing is clear: Without prejudicing their relationship to Taiwan, U.S. policymakers should test the idea and see how far Beijing is willing to take it.

Preoccupation with the war against terror, Iraq and now North Korea must not blind U.S. officials to any opportunity to defuse the only conflict that could plausibly take America to war against another great power in the early years of the 21st century.

Jiang?s offer may be part of a much larger effort by Beijing during the past 18 months, and especially since the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, to put forward a more constructive and responsible international face, particularly in improving U.S.-Chinese relations.

Beijing?s toned down rhetoric in opposition to the U.S. missile defense program, its helpful contributions to the Washington-led counter-terror campaign, its willingness to support a new UN Security Council resolution on Iraq well before Russia or France would, and its recent request to open a security dialogue with NATO are examples of the trend.

China?s approach toward Taiwan has appeared markedly less shrill in recent months. Beijing has shown a more nuanced approach, giving greater emphasis to political and economic carrots while still strengthening its military stick. The missile offer could be a piece of that overall approach to draw Taiwan closer into China?s orbit.

But the Chinese offer of a trade-off may also be nothing more than a political gesture to gain some diplomatic high ground. Knowing that a missile redeployment or freeze would not substantially alter the real military balance on the ground, and knowing that it is unlikely that the United States would agree to any firm quid pro quo, Beijing can appear the conciliatory party.

With some 350 to 400 short- and medium-range missiles positioned opposite Taiwan, it could be that China?s deployments have reached a saturation point in any case.

How should Washington and Taipei respond? Some ideas are nonstarters. America should categorically refuse to limit arms sales to Taiwan for nonmissile threats, regardless of China?s willingness to freeze or reduce missile deployments. In particular, the Bush administration should not withdraw its offer to sell Taipei maritime patrol aircraft, submarines, Kidd-class destroyers and improved air-to-air missiles.

The United States should still abide by the “six assurances” it offered Taiwan in 1982. In particular, it pledged not to set any date to end arms sales to Taiwan and not to consult with China over the specifics of any weapons sale to Taiwan prior to making that sale.

America should also recognize that any reductions in Chinese missile deployments near Taiwan could be quickly reversed, and avoid responses that would be difficult to reverse.

Still, the Chinese offer is potentially far too significant to brush aside. The United States should encourage China to reduce its missile deployments unilaterally, and promise that any such decision would have important, if indirect, effects on its arms sales policy.

With less of a Chinese missile threat, Taiwan would have less need for controversial Aegis-class destroyers. It still may need improvements to its existing Patriot missile defense technology, but that measure might be postponed. Since Taiwan is having a hard time concluding arrangements for the weapons already promised in 2001, that may be a small price to pay.

The United States cannot make concrete promises to China about postponements, but it can suggest a process of phased mutual restraint that could build on itself.

Just as importantly, perhaps, Washington should continue discouraging Taiwan from developing more offensive capabilities, such as ballistic mis siles, which could be used for preemptive attacks against Chinese missile batteries and military bases.

Unless China really is prepared to eliminate missiles and stop building new ones, the potential for formal arms control is limited. But formal arms control is not always of the utmost importance, as the Bush administration has argued in withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and opposing ratification of biological and nuclear testing accords.

In the triangular America-China-Taiwan context, the diplomatic process of beginning a dialogue on military restraint and improving security relations could itself be the single most important result of engaging Beijing on its offer. The Bush administration should not pass up the chance.

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