dangerous straits
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introduction: originally posted october 18,2001

As President Bush arrives in Shanghai for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, where he will meet with China's president Jiang Zemin, FRONTLINE and The New York Times join forces to explore the U.S.-China relationship. As much as trade or the need for cooperation in the fight against terrorism, it is the flashpoint issue of Taiwan -- the capitalist and now democratic island that China has been trying to reclaim for five decades -- that remains the greatest source of tension between the world's most powerful country and its most populous one.

Through interviews with key government officials, military leaders, and observers in Washington, Beijing, and Taipei -- as well as with New York Times Beijing bureau chief Erik Eckholm and White House correspondent David Sanger -- this report questions whether China's uncompromising stance toward Taiwan could draw the United States into a shooting war in the Pacific and whether the U.S. can develop a relationship with Beijing that includes trust, not just trade.

Tensions in U.S.-China relations were laid bare in April 2001 when a Chinese fighter collided with an American EP-3 spy plane over international waters off China's southern coast. "Dangerous Straits" takes viewers behind the scenes of that international crisis, examining the split within the Bush administration over whether to treat China as a potential economic partner or as a strategic threat.

The pilot of the EP-3, Lt. Shane Osborn, gives a detailed account of the terrifying moment his plane was hit by the Chinese fighter. And Admiral Joseph Prueher, then the U.S. ambassador to China, describes the tortuous negotiations to secure the crew's release. This tense stand-off illustrated just how quickly a confrontation between the two countries could flare up into a serious international incident.

The very presence of the American spy plane on that day points to the history of U.S. support for Taiwan. Indeed the friction between the U.S. and China over the Taiwan issue, many observers say, is central to the future peace and stability of the region. The program traces the tense peace that has existed in the Taiwan Strait for fifty years -- ever since anti-Communist Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and set up operations after World War II.

When Taiwan formally established a democratic government in the 1990s, its support in the U.S. Congress increased -- despite the fact that the U.S. does not officially recognize the island as an independent, sovereign nation. To the contrary, ever since the Nixon administration's opening of relations with China in the 1970s, the U.S. has recognized the Communist regime in Beijing as the one legitimate government of China.

Now that Taiwan has become a democracy, many want the island to declare itself an independent state -- a move that China specialists such as David M. Lampton say Beijing will never accept peacefully. If China were to take military action, would the U.S. come to Taiwan's defense? In 1996, when China began firing missiles close to Taiwan's coast in response to Taipei's increasing talk of independence, the United States made a strong show of support for Taiwan by sending two aircraft carrier groups to the area -- an action that could have led to war. President Bush reiterated America's commitment to Taiwan shortly after the EP-3 crisis when he said the U.S. would do "whatever it took" to defend the island, an unequivocal statement that seemed to go beyond previous U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity on U.S. military defense of Taiwan. (The White House later said that the president had not changed U.S. policy.)

"Dangerous Straits" also looks at developments that may draw China and Taiwan closer together politically, such as the close financial relationship, including a $40 billion infusion of investments from Taiwan, that has added to the mainland's remarkable economic growth in recent years -- growth that is politically crucial to the government in Beijing.

China has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past twenty years into one of the world's major market economies, eager to do business with the West. Many think China's booming trade with the U.S. will be a factor in helping to stabilize U.S.-China relations. Others point out that China's economic growth has helped the government upgrade its once-backward military into a credible threat to American interests in Asia.

As David Sanger of The Times observes, there have long been two camps on China policy within the Republican Party: "a very business-oriented camp -- in some ways you could call it the Boeing camp" and "a containment crowd, a group that believes that the portion of the administration that wants closer economic ties is naive about the growing military threat from China." In the spy plane incident, Sanger says, this latter group "saw the confirmation of all that they had been saying for many years."

Fred Thompson, the Republican senator from Tennessee, warns, "We know that they have 300-plus missiles along the coast there pointed toward Taiwan. And we know that they're doing training exercises on those islands in the Strait. We know for example that they're using American ships and submarines as enemies in their training exercises. And they know that we know that, they're sending a signal to us, they're sending a signal to Taiwan."

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