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In 1995 and 1996, during Taiwan’s democratic elections, Beijing’s military conducted war games in the straits between the two countries and lobbed missiles just off the coast of the nation that represents the only bastion of freedom for the Chinese people. The United States sent two aircraft carriers into the area to deter a Chinese attack.

The world held its breath. But the Chinese went no further with their bluff.

One has to wonder, after President Clinton’s latest concessions on the fate of Taiwan, how much differently a similar situation would be handled today.

Following his meetings with Jiang Zemin in Washington last week, Clinton pledged non-interference in disputes between Taiwan and China. He said, ultimately, all such issues would have to be resolved by the Chinese people themselves with no room for outsiders.

“I think the Chinese people know how to resolve this when the time is right,” Clinton said.

A nice sentiment. But the Chinese “people” have very little to say about the way anything is handled in their country. They live under the terror of a totalitarian regime backed by the world’s largest army. If given the choice, most mainlanders would undoubtedly not only decide to leave Taiwan free, many would probably choose to join them.

But the people don’t have that choice. That’s why it’s hardly a fair fight between China and Taiwan. And that’s why the United States historically has let China know that it would back the island against an invasion. Right now, most military experts believe Taiwan is well-fortified against such an onslaught. But how long will that be true?

Beijing’s long-standing policy toward Taiwan remains the same. It claims it has the right to use force to retake the island. Jiang specifically refused to budge on that issue during his talks with Clinton.

China is modernizing its navy and buying Russian warships and submarines. It is producing its own battleships faster than any nation on earth. It is also constantly improving the accuracy and destructive power of its missiles, and, with the help of western technology Clinton is providing, those improvements will be made faster than ever before.

That’s why in Taiwan, Clinton’s words were reason for concern if not alarm. Was the United States backing even further away from its commitment to freedom for Taiwan? Were the actions of the past in defending the free Chinese people’s right to self-determination just that — actions of the past? Was Clinton writing them off like the West wrote off Hong Kong? Was he signaling that the U.S. would not assert itself the next time China tried to bully Taiwan into submission?

Without question, Clinton’s approach represented a dramatic U.S. policy change — one that was scarcely noticed here in America. If, indeed, the U.S. would no longer “interfere” in disputes between the two countries, what would happen the next time China decided to mobilize its military off the shores of Taiwan and fire missiles in its direction?

Jiang clearly interpreted Clinton’s statement about “outside forces” as meaning any that would support independence for Taiwan.

“I am very happy that I discussed this issue in clear-cut terms with President Clinton,” Jiang said. He added China would stick to the Taiwan policies formulated by Deng Xiaoping .

When asked whether Washington might play the role of mediator, Jiang said: “I think the most important thing the U.S. can do is to adhere strictly to the ‘one China policy.’”

If you think the matter of Taiwan is a side issue for Beijing, think again. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen described Taiwan as “the single most important and sensitive point in Sino-US relations”. Qian also indicated the US had agreed to reduce arms sales to Taiwan — a point not disputed by the Clinton administration.

Clinton was just ambiguous enough, though, in his statement on Taiwan to leave even his benefactors in Beijing wondering. Jiang was pleased, but he wants more.

“The U.S. government has reiterated on many occasions its commitment to the ‘One China’ policy and the three joint communiqués,” he said. “As much as we appreciate that, we hope these words will count and be followed by productive actions.”

In other words, Jiang wants a timetable — just like the Chinese got with Hong Kong. They want to negotiate a surrender of the island. He wants Taiwan handed over to the Chinese on a silver platter. And, if Clinton’s pro-Chinese actions to date are any indication, those expectations are realistic.

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