It’s time to tackle Taiwan

TAIPEI — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks on Friday underscoring the strong U.S. commitment to Taiwan were welcome here, as was The Washington Times’s report that the Obama administration is preparing to announce approval of an arms package that will allow Taiwan to significantly upgrade its defenses.

Clinton’s words were important, coming on the heels of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent comments that could be taken as ambivalent toward Taiwan, and just prior to the Washington arrival of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

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China remains as rhetorically committed to seizing Taiwan as ever and has something like a thousand missiles targeted at the island and her 23 million inhabitants. Few observers doubt that the island would have been incorporated into the Communist mainland decades ago but for the fact that the U.S. has made clear that it will defend Taiwan if Beijing tries to take it. 

When I first visited Taiwan in the ’60s, the island was poor, under martial law, totally dependent on U.S. military support and economic aid, and her people were wondering if she could hold out against the Communist forces that had driven Chiang Kai-shek’s army from the mainland not that many years before.

The remnants of Chiang’s nationalist forces, dug in on the small offshore island of Quemoy, or Kinmen, perhaps the most heavily fortified place anywhere, had weathered the heaviest bombardment in history and were nervously listening to Communists gleefully describing over loudspeakers directed at them just what was going to happen to them and their families if they continued to resist.

But resist they did, and today the fortified tunnels in which they were forced to live attract tourists who prowl in search of trinkets and T-shirts. Taiwan is wealthy beyond the dreams of any of Chiang’s troops and one of the freest and most democratic nations in the world. Her highways are crowded, high-speed trains traveling at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour connect her to major cities, and it’s been decades since her government relied on the U.S. for the funds needed to survive.

Yet even as tourists flock to the island, everyone here is aware that missiles are pointed their way and that a misstep could lead to war. The remarkable thing about the people of Taiwan, however, is that one never gets the sense that they’ve let this threat get the better of them as they’ve gone about building their China into what it is today.

The Taiwanese have embarked on a remarkable policy of engaging their massive neighbor, investing in China, opening their borders to the mainland and negotiating bilateral trade agreements with Beijing. Today more than a million Taiwanese work on the mainland, and Taipei’s streets are teeming with mainland Chinese tourists. When our delegation visited the Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses the world’s largest collection of Chinese antiquities, we were told more than 1.6 million mainlanders toured the museum in 2010.

It may or may not work, but the Taiwanese are hoping and firmly believe that as mainland China continues to grow, her leaders will realize that the consequences of attacking their neighbor would be too catastrophic to contemplate and that the two governments and peoples will ultimately learn to live and work together in spite of their differences.

They are also hoping, as are Americans, that a growing middle class on the mainland will subtly but effectively alter the way Beijing’s rulers treat their own people and look at the outside world. They are hoping that inevitably Beijing will follow the capitalist course that Taiwan broached so successfully. It may be an overly optimistic hope, but optimism sometimes pays off … especially if, like the Taiwanese, one prepares should things turn sour.

It’s a high-stakes gamble, but there are few alternatives and the Chinese on Taiwan have always managed to play the cards they’ve been dealt pretty well. That’s what they’re doing now.

What’s more, the Taiwanese know that while their adversary across the straits may be dangerous, unlike some of the adversaries the U.S. is confronting in other parts of the world, Beijing is quite rational. Rationality is Taiwan’s best hope, and they’re betting everything on it as a gamble that just might continue to succeed.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental 
consulting firm.