The Washington Times

Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian kicked up a fuss earlier this month with his statement that there are two countries facing each other across the Taiwan Strait, China and Taiwan, and proposing a referendum on Taiwan about its future status, including the possibility of independence. China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province whose destiny is reunification with the mainland, was clearly displeased.

But what is perhaps most striking this time around is how relatively muted the Chinese reaction was, especially in comparison with the bellicose reaction that greeted sings of what Beijing perceived as “splittism” in 1995-96.

Then, in a protracted response to a visit to the United States by Taiwan’s then-president, Lee Teng-hui, China launched large-scale military exercises simulating a forceful takeover, including missile tests that overflew Taiwan as the Taiwanese presidential election drew near.

The Clinton administration was never especially worried that the military exercises were a cover for an actual takeover move. But there were serious concerns at the time that a misstep could lead to war. Accordingly, the administration, which had warned China against conducting the 1996 tests and consistently restated U.S. opposition to any forceful attempt at reunification, ordered two carrier battle groups to the area – to send a signal to Beijing and to give the United States military options if necessary.

Beijing reacted angrily to what it regarded as an intrusion into its internal affairs. Sentiment in other Asian nations expressed concern about the potentially destabilizing effects of an American overreaction, which some feared would encourage Taiwanese independence aspirations. But in the event, the crisis waned without war or independence moves.

U.S. policy on China, from the time of its creation by Henry Kissinger, relied on a certain ambiguity in the remaining U.S. commitment to Taiwan. On one hand, China was to be deterred from trying to take over by force by the seeming U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan. On the other, Taiwan was to be deterred from destabilizing actions, including steps toward independence, by the “seeming” quality of the U.S. commitment to its defense – its uncertainty. Deprived of an iron-clad assurance, Taiwan would be more likely to restrain itself.

What the 1995-96 exercise demonstrated was that the U.S. position was too clever for anyone’s good. It is clear from Chinese officials’ accounts that they did not believe that the United States would defend Taiwan – not until the arrival of the two carriers during the Strait crisis persuaded them otherwise. Likewise, Taiwan did not seem especially deterred by the possibility of U.S. abandonment from taking steps Beijing would regard as provocative.

Thus the irony: China, which was supposed to take our commitment to Taiwan’s defense seriously enough to be deterred by it, perceived the ambiguity instead as a cover for toothlessness on the U.S. part. And Taiwan, which was supposed to be deterred by the ambiguity of the commitment, actually took it seriously enough to proceed along a course that would rile Beijing. The two misreadings reinforced the respective wishes of officials in both Beijing and Taipei.

All in all, the product of ambiguity was enough misperception to risk war. The arrival of the second carrier battle group finally persuaded Beijing that the United States meant to defend Taiwan – in other words, that if the time for a forceful takeover ever comes, China must be prepared to fight the United States. And so the Chinese military is preparing for that possibility, as is the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, though, Taiwan has not been emboldened by the now-unambiguous U.S. commitment to its defense to pursue a course of independence. There have been a few outbreaks of “splittism,” including Mr. Chen’s latest, but nothing too extreme, and indeed, no sooner had Mr. Chen made his comments than other Taiwanese officials began walking them back, with stories appearing in the media that he was speaking off the cuff, hadn’t consulted with his national security advisers, etc.

Why was that? Well, China too made its position fairly clear during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis: A move to independence would mean war. So now, Taiwan is deterred from undertaking such a course, not by the supposed fear of abandonment by the United States, as our policy initially tried to suggest, but by the horrible costs a war with China over independence would impose on Taiwan.

Ambiguity is very clever, of course. But when your ambiguity causes others to reach the conclusion they personally favor about what you are up to, irrespective of your true intentions, then it is time for a dose of clarity. This latest China-Taiwan crisis was the milder for it.