Will China follow North Korea as willingly on its path to peace today as it did on the road to war 50 years ago? In 1950, Beijing joined its "little communist brother" in an ill-fated war to unify the Korean peninsula under Pyongyang's "one Korea" system, just as China claimed the right to forcibly incorporate Taiwan under its rule. The United Nations condemned both countries for aggression.
Two weeks ago, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il (whose father unleashed the war), welcomed South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, to Pyongyang in a historic meeting of reconciliation. Taiwan's newly elected president, Chen Shui-bian, like Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, praised the efforts of the two Kims to undertake peaceful talks and reduce long-standing tensions.
Chen backed up his positive words with positive action by inviting Jiang to a similar summit meeting. So far, his overtures have been rebuffed. Unlike the creative statesmanship demonstrated by the two Korean leaders, who met without preconditions, Beijing still insists that no dialogue with Taipei is possible until it first accepts the "one-China principle" conceding the mainland's sovereignty over Taiwan.
As China's leaders know, American policies toward the situation on the Korean peninsula and the standoff between China and Taiwan are inextricably linked. The Truman administration originally evinced little interest in either place. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined Washington's security perimeter in the Far East in his famous National Press Club speech in January 1950, he failed to include South Korea. Seeing a green light, the leaders in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang agreed on the North Korean attack across the 38th Parallel.
President Truman not only rallied to the defense of South Korea, but he also deployed the 7th Fleet to protect the Republic of China on Taiwan against a similar breakout move by mainland China. The United States entered into a defense treaty with Taiwan that lasted until 1979, when President Carter switched American recognition to the People's Republic of China in Beijing.
By that time, however, America's relations with the people and government of Taiwan had deepened to the point that Congress would not accept an abandonment of its former ally. It overwhelmingly passed the Taiwan Relations Act that, while not formally committing Washington to Taiwan's defense, made any threat to its security "a matter of grave concern" and pledged to arm it with all necessary defensive weapons.
During the past half-century of Cold War and post-Cold War tensions, the Korean peninsula and the China-Taiwan dispute have remained two of the world's most dangerous flash points, directly implicating American security interests. But unlike the clear statement of U.S. intention to defend South Korea, the wiggle room in American policy toward Taiwan has evolved into a deliberate doctrine of "strategic ambiguity."
When Chinese officials asked their American counterparts in December 1995 whether Washington would defend Taiwan against an attack, they were told "it would depend on the circumstances." Beijing has been probing ever since to determine which "circumstances" would constitute a green light more reliable than the one they thought they saw on Korea 50 years ago. Chinese missile firings across the Taiwan Strait brought two U.S. carrier battle groups to the region in 1996. Yet China keeps trying, and now has deployed hundreds of missiles along the coast facing Taiwan.
North Korea's own missile program showed again the ties between Korean tensions and the China-Taiwan situation. Pyongyang's recent firing of a medium-range ballistic missile over Japan's air space accelerated American and Japanese interest in a theater missile defense system. Beijing was quick to condemn this as a shield to protect Taiwan against Chinese missiles, which it might well become.
Chen keeps trying to break the ice with Beijing and hopes China and Taiwan can emulate the two Koreas in talks instead of military buildups. But as he notes, good will cannot come from only one side. North Korea's reclusive Kim may prove the more adept diplomat and enlightened peacemaker than China's well-traveled Jiang.