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Vol.26, No. 19 Apr. 9, 2001

Tensions With China Run Deep: Nathan

By Lauren Marshall

While China and the United States are caught in strained diplomatic talks to determine who is at fault for the recent collision of an American navy “spy” plane and a Chinese fighter, the deeper issues may be trust and territory, if history is any indication. According to Andrew J. Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia and one of the nation’s leading scholars of Chinese politics, current China-U.S. relations are influenced by their long-standing clash of policies over Taiwan.

In “One China? Taiwanese Independence Question,” a feature on Fathom (

globalaffairs1), Nathan reveals the reality behind political tensions between the two countries over Taiwan, a flourishing democracy that enjoys de facto independence under an American umbrella, even though China claims it as a piece of its own territory.

Before 1895, Taiwan was a province of China. But in that year Japan took it over from China and ruled the island as a colony until after World War II. After Japan’s defeat in the war, Taiwan returned to the control of the then Nationalist government of China and received a Chinese governor. In 1949, when the Chinese Civil War ended with a Communist victory, Taiwan remained Nationalist. As far as America was concerned, it was the seat of government for all of China. Thirty years later, in 1979, the U.S. formally recognized the Communist government as the government of “One China,” but insisted on a peaceful resolution of the relationship between the two territories. Today Taiwan and China speak in different ways about the concept of “One China,” and have failed to come to a common view of what it means.

“The U.S. policy has an evenhanded form, which says that it is against military action, no matter who launches it. But since only the Chinese side could conceivably launch military action, our policy favors Taiwan,” said Nathan in an interview with Fathom.

It is within this zone of ambiguity that Taiwan began the process of democratization in 1986. First came Lee Teng-hui, the island’s first Taiwanese-born president, who carried out “a series of policies that had the effect of saying we’re in Taiwan and we no longer claim the mainland: and in fact we’re a separate political entity.” But he never declared independence.

“Mainland China formed the view that Lee Teng-Hui was a very subtle and clever Taiwan independence advocate who talked about ‘One China’ 50, 100, 150 years down the road when, in the meantime, he wanted Taiwan to be its own political entity or its own state,” said Nathan.

Then as democratization progressed, the Taiwan electorate in 2000 voted in a president from the opposition Democratic Progressive party, a party whose platform advocated independence. The new president, Chen Shui-Bain, has so far refrained from declaring independence, but the Chinese government suspects him of wishing to do so.

“So the mainland decided that what was happening was that, under the American umbrella, the Taiwanese were carrying out a creeping independence, and the Americans were at fault for protecting the Taiwanese while they did that,” said Nathan.

Today, under current Taiwanese rule, there is a National Unification Council, the National Unification Guidelines and talk of national unification. But according to Nathan, it is all talk with no common agreement.

For the mainland, the idea of “one China” includes Taiwan, whose authorities do not have the attributes of a state in the international system. For Taiwan, “one China” is an idea, a thing of the future, but in the meantime, the country elects its own president, has a government and bears a state name, the Republic of China, that dates from 1912, before the Communist party was even founded.

According to Nathan, confusion on the Chinese side is created on purpose. It is a word game. For the Tawianese, it is a sort of self-preservation. If Taiwan does not provoke Beijing into military action, it can remain in a nonprovocative policy of the current government and as a separate entity be protected by the hovering presence of the United States.

The Chinese, however, are willing to concede substantial autonomy to Taiwan-its own elected government, army, economic policies. But by demanding that Taiwan be recognized as a part of China and that the central government is Beijing, they are striving to prevern Taiwan from having any freedom of action in the international arena, and to preserve the territorial integrity of China.

“So why couldn’t Beijing meet with Taiwan on an equal basis, acknowledge that they’re a state, and still move in the direction of ‘one China’?” said Nathan. “I think the problem is trust.”

As history indicates, Taiwan has managed to negotiate effectively on its behalf. “With Chen Shui-Bian, the history of his background suggests to the mainland that everything he does is a trick.”

But despite tricks, mistrust and word games, China wants Taiwan. Why? Territorial integrity. “ China’s a big country, which has often been picked apart one way or another. So security issues for the Chinese are not Dr. Strangelove-these are real issues.”

Possession of Taiwan also has security significance and the allure of a strong economy.

Nathan has taught at Columbia since 1971 and is currently the director of graduate studies in the political science department. This semester he is teaching Chinese Foreign Policy. He is author and editor of a number of articles and books on Chinese political history and is currently working on another project entitled: “Political Culture and Political Participation in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong: A Comparative Survey.”