Robert S. Ross is Professor of Political Science at Boston College and an Associate at the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University. His most recent book is Normalization of U.S.-China Relations: An International History, which he co-edited.
HISTORY OF A CAMPAIGN THAT FAILED
Political developments in Taiwan over the past year have effectively ended the independence movement there. What had been a major source of regional instability -- and the most likely source of a great-power war anywhere in the world -- has become increasingly irrelevant. The peaceful transformation of relations between China and Taiwan will help stabilize eastern Asia, reduce the likelihood of conflict between China and the United States, and present an opportunity for Beijing, Taipei, and Washington to adjust their defense postures -- all without hurting Taiwan's security or threatening U.S. interests.
Taiwan's independence movement gained momentum in 1995 when Washington allowed Taiwan's then president, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the United States. During his stay, Lee gave a speech at Cornell University that signaled his impatience for independence. Before that trip, the United States had long banned visits by Taiwan's leaders in deference to Beijing's insistence that Taiwan is a Chinese province. By suddenly allowing Lee to visit, Washington seemed to Beijing to be encouraging independence.
China reacted by deploying short-range missiles across the strait from Taiwan and accelerating its purchase of Russian submarines and advanced aircraft. In March 1996, it conducted provocative missile tests near the island, interfering with shipping to Taiwan and provoking the United States to deploy two aircraft carrier battle groups to the vicinity of Taiwan. Following the face-off, the Pentagon began actively planning for hostilities with China and expedited U.S. deployments to eastern Asia and its acquisition of new weaponry. Washington also pressed for closer defense ties with Taipei, which it urged to buy costly, high-profile weapons such as submarines and Patriot missile defense systems. Beijing, viewing these measures as further evidence of the United States' encouragement of Taiwan's independence, became increasingly suspicious of U.S. intentions.
After 1996, the situation remained tense, and the repeated steps toward independence taken by Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's president since 2000, fanned the flames. Although the independence movement enjoyed a high profile internationally, it never won widespread domestic support. The increasingly unpopular Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the driving forces behind the independence movement in recent years, have suffered several electoral defeats, and advocates of greater cooperation with the mainland have gained ground. A new, calmer era in cross-strait relations seems to be dawning.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
Taiwan shares a culture, language, and heritage with mainland China. But after Taiwan's half century of autonomy, economic progress, and democratization, and the resulting contrast between Taiwan and authoritarian China, many on the island have developed a strong sense of "Taiwan identity," and they believe that Taiwan now merits international recognition as a sovereign country. By the mid-1990s, the "Taiwan identity" movement had become a major force in Taiwanese politics. But it has not resulted in widespread calls for a formal declaration of independence. Voters, reflecting Beijing's military and economic hold on the island, have preferred to accommodate China's opposition to Taiwan's independence. By 2000, thanks to its accelerated missile and aircraft deployments, Beijing had developed the capability ...
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