dangerous straits
homeinterviewsexperts's analyseschronology

Why the Taiwan Issue is so Dangerous

Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with David Lampton and Kurt Campbell, two China specialists; Erik Eckholm, Beijing bureau chief of The New York Times; Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), a China critic; Yang Jiechi, China's ambassador to the U.S.; Zhu Bangzao, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry; and Dr. Joseph Wu, deputy director of the Institute of International Relations in Taiwan.

David Lamptonread the full interview

He is director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

How dangerous is the Taiwan issue?

... prior to the World Trade Center bombing and its aftermath, if you asked where in the world could two major nuclear powers come into conflict, I would have said that the only probable place -- and it is probably still the only probable place -- where two big nuclear powers could come into conflict would be the Taiwan Strait.

In effect, the prevention of Taiwan going independent is absolutely critical to the legitimacy of the Chinese communist regime. Chinese leaders believe that, if they were to let Taiwan go independent and not respond, they would probably be overthrown by their own nationalistic people. Therefore, I think they would be willing to engage in what we might call "self-defeating military adventures" in order to prevent that result, even if they knew they were going to lose.

So in my view, the key problem for the United States is how to deter the PRC from using force against Taiwan. We have to be very clear about that, because I think the United States would intervene if force were used under most circumstances I can imagine. But on the other hand, we have to deter Taiwan from engaging in such risky behavior that they precipitate an attack that will be destabilizing to Asia, destroy the Taiwan economy and drag the United States into a regional conflict.

And what would provoke this -- for China?

They have a list of things that would provoke, but basically, certainly a ... declaration of independence would be one of those things. I would think it would probably mean war. It would certainly mean some form of military conflict or economic embargo or an attempt by the PRC to destabilize Taiwan's economy. But let's put it this way: It would mean a substantial escalation of conflict ... the inevitable result of that...

So how long is China prepared to wait to make sure that Taiwan becomes part of China?

...As long as they have confidence that Taiwan is not going to go independent and that the forces of economic integration are gradually pulling Taiwan towards the mainland, I think they can be very patient; and by "very patient," I mean decades.

Why do they have this extraordinary military buildup of missiles opposite Taiwan?

I'm not quite sure that the word "extraordinary" is justified. But it is significant. They're probably adding maybe 50 a year short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles in the area of the Taiwan Strait in coastal China, and that's a significant threat.

But in the end, these missiles are, in effect, just large bombs. And if you start using those missiles against the people of Taiwan, does anyone seriously think this is going to increase the willingness of the people of Taiwan to join in any significant political union with the PRC?

...So my general advice to the PRC is find more positive reasons that the people of Taiwan should want to be in some closer political association with you. You might be able to prevent them declaring independence with military force, but you will never achieve reunification with those means.

Does America have an obligation to defend Taiwan if it's attacked?

We no longer have a treaty obligation to come to the defense of Taiwan. What we have is what's called the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. This obligates the United States to sell weapons of a defensive character to Taiwan. It obligates us to be concerned about the situation in Taiwan and the region. And it obligates the president of the United States to consult with Congress about what to do. So, in a sense, we are obligated to be concerned and give Taiwan the means by which it can defend itself, but we are not obligated to come to the direct rescue.

Erik Eckholmread the full interview

He is Beijing bureau chief of The New York Times.

What the Chinese are most afraid of is a real movement toward independence. Which they have to stop. They have to continually warn Taiwan - and the United States - that "hey, don't push us too far. Or we will be forced to react militarily." That doesn't mean they want to invade Taiwan. They have a short timetable. The number one principle--if you are a Chinese leader--is not that you have to regain Taiwan in the next five years. It's that you can't lose Taiwan.

Why do they worry about a small island, like this?

It's their unfinished civil war. It just looms very large in the history and mythology of the People's Republic of China. They fought a civil war with this nationalist government. They essentially defeated them. The nationalists escaped to an island which they consider an integral part of China. And then, because of American support and other intervening factors, they never finished. And I think especially for the military, this is the main reason for being--is to prevent Taiwanese independence and some day retake Taiwan. ... I think preventing Taiwanese independence is sort of a core principle of politics here. And no politician could go against that. ...

Senator Fred Thompsonread the full interview

The Republican senator has been a critic of China over the years.

How important is the Taiwan Strait? How dangerous is that area?

It is potentially very dangerous. One of the things that we picked up on our delegation in August when we were in China,is the constant theme from them that "This is important to us. Taiwan is important to us. We don't want to wait forever. We want unification." And it's difficult for the average American to understand why something like that could be so important and why a little small place like Taiwan would be so important to the PRC. But the fact of the matter is, it is true, it is real, it is very important, and therefore very dangerous.

So our policy there has to be has to be sophisticated and very courageous. I'm glad that we've got people like George Bush and Colin Powell and Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and people like that on the job, quite frankly, because I think that our relationship with China over the next few decades is probably the single most important issue facing our country.

Why is that?

Because of the potential threats, misunderstandings and conflict that we have there ... right now, they pose the greatest potential. Hopefully, we can build bridges, but we also have to draw lines. And when we draw lines in the sand with regard to certain basic things that are vital to our interest and to the interest of democracy and our friends around the world, we have to be willing to back that up. If you're willing to back it up, there is potential danger; there is potential conflict.

From your knowledge, can you give me a picture of their military forces opposite Taiwan?

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. They're going to wait and see how we react to all of that. But it's not like that there's any particular buildup right now. ... It's what the potential there is over the next few years, and then over the next several years.

Could it just be a bargaining chip to make America and Taiwan listen?

Could be, could be. But when you're playing poker, you don't know the answer to that until after the cards are laid down, and then it's too late. So if you look back over the long history of China, they've never tried to take over the world, but they've been quite aggressive in their own neighborhood ... in carrying out their own purposes and interests in their sphere of the world....

Kurt Campbellread the full interview

He is senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

How dangerous is the Taiwan Strait area?

There are many factors associated with the Taiwan Strait that makes it quite dangerous. ... Probably the most important factor is that you have forces at work that appear to be almost inexorable.

Over the last several years, [there has been] a really sort of determined Chinese military build-up aimed at Taiwan that neither scolding from Western diplomats, nor appeals to their own self interest had any success in blunting or lessening. At the same time, there is an inexorable process in Taiwan of greater democratization, sort of a greater identity of seeing themselves as more Taiwanese than Chinese. And perhaps, most importantly, a lack of clarity in the United States about what precisely are our strategic interests, and perhaps more importantly, how to achieve them.

So it is a potential flashpoint?

Oh, it's undoubtedly a potential flashpoint. I would say that the interesting thing about the world today is that every major challenge to peace and stability that has the potential to erupt on a global scale is found in Asia. There is nothing in Europe. You can't really imagine a scenario that would lead to a global war ... overnight in Europe. I can imagine three, in Asia.

There are still tents that stand on the Korean peninsula. The increasingly delicate and complicated relationship across the Taiwan Strait and, of course, the ... nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan.

The Taiwan Strait issue is most complicated, because the United States does not have a firm and clear role in terms of what it would do in a military crisis. The unusual thing, from the perspective of the security planner, or strategic thinker, is that if you span the globe ... you see a strong U.S. role in trying to bridge gaps and bring peace, literally everywhere. ... The Taiwan Strait ... is the only place in the world where we, at the outset, have forsaken an active diplomatic role. But it is also a place that, overnight, we might find U.S. forces thrust into the mix.

So that is potentially severe for America?

And for the world. Before the tragic bombing [9/11/01] it was the one convening issue that American policy makers and strategists were spending more and more time thinking about behind the scenes. Our military establishment and our intelligence organizations do these war games ... often recreating the tensions associated with major international dilemmas. I think it would be fair to say that, in the last couple of years, probably a hundred of these run on some facet of Asia, generally associated with the Taiwan Strait.

The foreign policy towards Taiwan, and China ... they call it "strategic ambiguity." Do we really not know what we would do if there was conflict between Taiwan and China?

... I think, increasingly, the United States does have a sense of what it would do in a crisis in the Taiwan Strait ... and I think that notion has been more refined over time. I think you saw earlier signs of that in the first Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995, 1996, when the United States sent two aircraft carriers and their associated ... ships and submarines with that group to the Western Pacific. That's a pretty strong statement of the U.S. will to preserve peace and stability.

Yang Jiechiread the full interview

He is China's ambassador to the United States.

Why does China feel so strongly that Taiwan independence would be an act of war by Taiwan?

Because Taiwan is part of China. It has been part of China since ancient times, and it's just because of some of the separatist attempts of certain people on Taiwan and the interference from foreign forces that Taiwan is still separated from the motherland.

I think that people can understand that when a country is divided its people will like to see the country reunite, especially in the case of China, which has suffered so much in the past. So I believe that what we are doing has the support of the peace-loving people in the world and we are seeking peaceful unification -- one country, two systems, is our basic policy.s. Of course, we will not make a commitment to go to the use of force. We do not make this kind of commitment precisely because we want to see the peaceful reunification of the country.

And there are some events in Taiwan which really cause us grave concern. Some people are openly campaigning for Taiwan independence and, of course, we have also been concerned by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and other things. We have urged the American side to abide by the three joint communiqués between the two countries and to stop selling weapons to Taiwan.

Taiwanese authorities say openly Taiwan is an independent nation, or a sovereign nation. In your view, is that a very dangerous statement for Taiwanese authorities to make?

It is a very dangerous statement.... And the overwhelming majority of the people in Taiwan now have come to understand that precisely because of this kind of a statement and corresponding actions, they have caused instability across the Taiwan Strait and instability in Taiwan. And people have lots of complaints about this policy.

Can I ask you, then, why has there been a missile build-up on China's southern coast pointing towards Taiwan?

The kind of defensive measures that we take on the mainland are really for our national security and territorial entirety. If people look at the text of the three joint communiqués, [Editor's Note: see FRONTLINE's chronology] according to the August 17 communiqué, the United States has pledged to the Chinese side that it does not seek to carry out long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan and its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed the level of those in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States... and then the United States will reduce its arms sales to Taiwan over the period leading to a final resolution. So you can see that the United States has not really abided by its own pledge.

We have made very strong representation to the American side for these acts. We think that these acts should not have happened....

Dr. Joseph Wuread the full interview

He is a deputy director of the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University in Taiwan.

How dangerous is the Taiwan Strait for America and the rest of the world?

I would say it's quite dangerous, because there is a high degree of competition in terms of military build-up across the Taiwan Strait. China already has 60, 70 submarines in the area and Taiwan only has four. So in that area China has significant power if they decide to have a blockade against Taiwan.

In terms of air force, China has been acquiring 150 SU-27s. They are in the process of having SU-30s and more advanced Russian-made aircraft. In the area of our naval forces, they are having four mini-class destroyers equipped with SSM-20 missiles. Currently they seem to be no defense against those missiles, and those missiles have a range of 120 sea miles. So China is adding more and more to its weapon inventory in terms of more traditional weaponry and in terms of strategic weaponry.

They are adding 50 missiles more per year to their deployment, and currently they have about between 350 to 400. And they're still adding on and there's nothing seems to be able to slowing them down. They also developing cruise missiles and the multi-warhead missiles. Currently, even though people are talking about missile defense, there's no defense against cruise missiles or MERVs.

So the situation is developing into something that worries a lot of people here in Taiwan, a lot of decision-makers in the United States as well. The way we see it is that China is developing all these kinds of weapons very rapidly and deploying them so that they can have a total overwhelming force against Taiwan by the year 2005 or 2010. Then Taiwan will be subsumed, because if Taiwan is not able to keep up with this kind of pace of military competition against each other, then Taiwan is not likely to sustain a blockade or military attack. ...

Of all the conflicts in the world, as you look at the Taiwan Strait, how do you rate that as a potential flashpoint?

I would say it's probably the most dangerous flashpoint in the entire world, because once a war erupts here, then many countries are going to be drawn in. The United States is probably not going to sit idle. Japan and other countries in the area might have to react, because Taiwan Strait happens to be a very important sea link communication channel. The channel cannot afford to be shut down. So many countries will be drawn into the situation.

Zhu Bang-zaoread the full interview

He is a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

...Why do you not renounce your use of force [against Taiwan]? ...

I know there are people in the United States who use China's failure to renounce the use of force against Taiwan as an excuse for the U.S. to support Taiwan and sell arms to Taiwan. But their arguments cannot hold water.

Can I just say that that gives the impression to the Americans that China is a bully? It is a threatening power. It's a communist power which is threatening a small, tiny island. That, for an American, is a very disturbing prospect.

Your impression, if you will permit me to say so, is totally wrong. It suggests that the United States is very keen on a peaceful solution to the Taiwan issue, while mainland China wants to use military force. I think this is a misunderstanding which gives a totally wrong impression.

Actually, no one in the world is more eager than China to find a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question. We have always advocated peaceful reunification on the principle of one China, two systems. Even after the tremendous changes last year in Taiwan, we still advocate this principle, and hope to try our best to seek a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question. This is our basic principle and it has remained unchanged.

It is just because we want to solve the Taiwan question peacefully that we cannot give up the use of force. If we give up the use of force, that will only make a peaceful solution impossible. For instance, if the Taiwan separatists declare Taiwan independent, then how do we react? ...

Furthermore, it's entirely China's own internal affair if we deploy military equipment on our own soil.

If they do declare independence, what will China's response be?

...The key thing at the moment is that the leaders of the Taiwan government do not adequately recognize the one-China principle. They deny the 1992 oral understanding between us, which states that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should both use oral expression to maintain the principle of one China.

Actually, if the Taiwan leader can acknowledge the one-China principle, and recognize the 1992 consensus, then talks across the Taiwan Strait can be resumed immediately. However, if he's bent on having his own way, and denies the principle of one China -- or even goes as far as what you said and declares independence -- then our answer is very clear-cut. We will not allow it to happen.

The final solution of the Taiwan question and the ultimate reunification of the motherland is in the common interest of the people of China -- that is the 1.3 billion Chinese people, including those on Taiwan Island. No force can stand in the way of this.

If the leadership in Taiwan declared independence, you say you could not let that happen. The U.S. Defense Department worries that if that did happen, your response would be to use the many missiles you have got along the coast opposite Taiwan, and that would be much more devastating than the bombardment of the islands that happened in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Is that the sort of response you would have?

I have made our stand quite clear: Taiwanese independence is equal to war. That's why the United States should not support this movement; should not support independence for Taiwan. We, the two sides, should make joint efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan issue.

home + introduction + interviews + experts' analyses
chronology & map + readings & links + discussion + teacher's guide
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + frontline privacy policy
frontline + pbs online + wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
chinese army photo ©afp/corbis