Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Are There Two Chinas Now?

James Skillen


April 1, 1996

The people of Taiwan—85 percent of whom are Taiwanese, not Chinese—have voted. They want to do things their way. They will not be intimidated by China. Their aim is to develop their newly minted democracy in the same way they have developed their society and vibrant economy in recent decades—gradually and carefully. No wonder China is frustrated.

Recall the recent history. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese government took control of Taiwan in 1949 when it was chased off the mainland by Mao Zedong's Communists. Though confined to Taiwan, the Nationalists continued to insist that they were the legitimate government for all of China. The Red Chinese held the same view of their own authority: China, including Taiwan, is one country and the Communists constitute its only legitimate government.

Reality, as we know, was and remains something different from these two claims. After decades of maintaining the diplomatic fiction that the Nationalists were China's legitimate government, the United States and other Western countries finally acknowledged that the Beijing Communists actually ruled one fifth of the earth's population. In 1979, the U.S. recognized Beijing and then allowed the Communist government to take China's seat in the United Nations, replacing the Nationalists.

The United States was careful, however, not to ignore the reality of Taiwan even though it no longer recognized the Nationalists as China's government. Just as two German states emerged after World War II, two "Chinese states" were, in fact, finding their separate but unequal ways in the world.

Today, Taiwan is far closer than is China to changing its ideology to fit reality. Although Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui has not officially advocated Taiwanese separatism, he has, during the past eight years leading up to the first-ever democratic election on March 23, guided Taiwan toward democracy and greater independence. He is willing to drop the claim that his government has the right to rule all of China. At the same time, the evidence is clear—economically, politically, ethnically, and socially—that Taiwan is not just another Chinese province.

How should the United States react to all of this?

First, we should stay tuned to reality. The fact that Taiwan is now democratic and increasingly independent does not mean the West should try to use it as a lever against China. China remains a huge, unpredictable state, which is undergoing its own gigantic economic and political changes. President Clinton's quiet dispatch of a large naval armada to the region when China was trying to intimidate Taiwan with its war games was the right thing to do. We should send firm signals that the U.S. will not allow Taiwan to be treated as an internal province of China, but we must also signal that the U.S. will continue to deal with China on many fronts as the major power that it is.

Second, the U.S. should speed up its diplomatic efforts to promote the reorganization of security and defense in the Pacific rim. In Western Europe the U.S. worked with other nations to organize NATO. In the Pacific, however, partly due to Japan's post-war pacifism, the U.S. has remained the lone military power outside China. The time has come to develop, ever so carefully, a more significant security alliance that includes a modestly rearmed Japan as well as Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Eventually, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore—and perhaps one day even a democratic China—will join the new Asian security pact.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”