Feature

The tug-of-war over Taiwan

President Bush decided this week not to sell destroyers equipped with the Aegis missle defense system to Taiwan. But the U.S. will continue providing military aid to Taiwan, defying China. Why is this prosperous island so important to both nations?

Why are the U.S. and China squaring off over Taiwan?

Taiwan is caught between its historic connection to China and its current alliance with the West. China views Taiwan as a breakaway province that properly belongs to the People’s Republic of China. Sooner or later, China’s leaders say, Taiwan will be reunified with its parent nation on the mainland. The U.S. government, however, sees Taiwan as a key ally and wants to preserve it as an outpost of democracy and capitalism. The U.S. regularly sells weapons to the island and is pledged to assist in its defense; Taiwan, with 22 million people, is dwarfed by the People’s Republic, whose population is 1.3 billion.

Why is military aid a key issue?

The U.S.’s military assistance to Taiwan angers Chinese leaders for two principal reasons. They feel it encourages Taiwan’s belief that it can remain independent. And the U.S.’s presence by proxy on China’s doorstep evokes a deep, historical resentment of Western interference. Weapons sales to Taiwan link the island to a Western military alliance that includes the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. China’s sensitivity has been heightened by the fact that Taiwan’s new president, Chen Shui-bian, is its first from the pro-independence party. Previous presidents were from the Nationalist Party, which favors reunification

with the mainland.

What triggered the current conflict?

The collision between the U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet, first of all. The death of the Chinese pilot and China’s decision to hold the U.S. crew for 11 days ratcheted up a growing distrust between the two nations. Beijing has demanded that the U.S. stop surveillance flights close to its borders, and Washington has threatened to have U.S. fighter jets escort its surveillance planes. This all happened right after the Bush administration took a new, harder line toward China. President Clinton referred to China as a “strategic partner,” but Bush said China is properly viewed as a “strategic rival.”

Is China testing Bush?

Some analysts think so. It wouldn’t be the first time China has baited a new president to see what it could get away with. Some analysts believe China’s generals are picking a fight to force their own government to respond with a hard line of its own.

How did the U.S. become an ally of Taiwan?

During the Cold War, the U.S. took it upon itself to protect independent countries seeking democracy and protection from the threat of communism. After engaging in grueling wars to protect Korea and Vietnam, the U.S. took a different route in protecting Taiwan. Instead of aiding a war with China, with which America was starting to develop a relationship, the U.S. signed the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. The act promised to provide Taiwan with enough defensive weapons to keep it safe and independent.

Why does Taiwan want high-tech arms?

China has been building up its military might. Some analysts say China has been adding roughly 50 ballistic missiles every year to its defenses along the Taiwan Strait. And they’re pointed at Taiwan. Since the Taiwan Relations Act theoretically makes American arms available to them, Taiwan wants the best. Along with Patriot missiles, Taiwan wanted state-of-the-art ships. Taipei had its heart set on destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar defense system. Aegis-equipped ships and their computer-operated weapons systems can detect and hit targets on land, sea, and in the air. China said an Aegis sale would severely affect relations with Washington. This left President Bush with a difficult decision.

Why does China want

to absorb Taiwan?

The island was part of China until 1895, when China ceded Taiwan at the end of the Sino-Japanese War. China briefly retook Taiwan after the Japanese defeat in World War II. But in 1949, when Communists took control of the mainland, ruler Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan with 1 million of his followers and established a new government. Many people on both sides of the straits have backed the idea of reunification, but there has been little agreement on the terms.

Will the Taiwan issue lead to another U.S.–China showdown?

Probably not. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian and the Bush administration have agreed that sales of Aegis-equipped ships can wait. Taiwan will get four less-advanced destroyers instead, as well as diesel submarines to counter China’s growing sea power. China may be angered by the weapon sales, but Taiwan and China will probably maintain peace because they benefit from trading with each other. China also has plenty of reasons to avoid a major break with Washington. American consumers buy a third of China’s exports, and Congress has a chance in the summer to revoke China’s favorable trade status. The U.S. also could play a major role in blocking China’s efforts to win a spot in the World Trade Organization, and to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

China’s distrust of the West

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