In August 1995 and March 1996, China fired missiles across the Taiwan Strait, closing it to international commerce.
On both occasions, President Clinton sent aircraft carriers to deter Chinese escalation, the first time directly through the Taiwan Strait. China condemned this "violation" of its sovereignty (just as it now objects to planned U.S.-South Korea naval exercises in the Yellow Sea) and threatened "a sea of fire" for the next battle group entering the strait.
The ships stayed out, China stopped firing missiles, and the crisis dissipated.
Fast-forward to a just-released Defense Department assessment that describes China's continuing military buildup and its potential to enforce territorial claims on Taiwan, in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region.
The anti-Western hostility and paranoia of Chairman Mao's years have resurfaced in fresh charges of U.S. "containment" and "encirclement" of China. But now that sense of grievance and resentment is backed by the massive economic and military power the West helped China build.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has openly questioned Beijing's defiant approach to international norms. And Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated: "I have moved from being curious about what [the Chinese] are doing to being concerned about what they are doing."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton correctly warned Beijing against cutting off freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Obama administration worries that Beijing is defining its claims there as "core interests" on a par with Tibet and Taiwan, and if unchallenged, that could lead to dangerous Chinese adventurism.
Yet, on the Taiwan flashpoint, President Obama's team has unwisely perpetuated the policy of "strategic ambiguity" followed by every administration since Richard Nixon's.
Under that policy, Washington periodically sells Taipei weapons for minimal self-defense against an overwhelming Chinese attack. But Washington does not commit the United States to intervene, or not to intervene. We rely on American unpredictability to stay Beijing's hand.
The missile incidents of the mid-1990s were the closest the U.S. and China had come to open conflict since the Korean War.
At the time, Chinese military officials asked Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Nye how the U.S. would respond if China were to attack Taiwan.
He replied: "We don't know and you don't know. It would depend on the circumstances."
U.S. officials have repeated that mantra ever since, while Chinese generals have twice suggested that a U.S. defense of Taiwan could result in nuclear war reaching the American mainland.
Beyond harsh rhetoric, China further shaped the circumstances for a future Taiwan confrontation by acquiring more submarines and anti-ship missiles that could sink an aircraft carrier steaming anywhere near Taiwan. The Defense Department's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review confirms the strategy's success in complicating U.S. planning.
Both countries now prepare for war in a classic deterrence/counter-deterrence dynamic, a formula for catastrophic mutual miscalculation.
Neither Beijing nor Washington wants war, but as long as China believes the U.S. will ultimately abandon democratic Taiwan to avoid it, the danger of conflict increases.
It is time for U.S. clarity on Taiwan; strategic ambiguity has run its course.
Washington should declare that we would defend democratic Taiwan against any Chinese attack or coercion, and that we also welcome Taiwan's participation in international organizations (starting by inviting President Ma Ying-jeou to Honolulu for the December meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group).
In return, Taiwan must forgo formal independence for now, even though that result is ultimately consistent with American values.
In exchange for China's renouncing force, Washington should also pledge not to recognize formal Taiwan statehood and discourage others from doing so, while also insisting that China's use of force would trigger instant recognition.
Finally, Clinton should reconsider her reluctance to challenge China's sorry human rights record. A more principled stand in support of Chinese democracy is the best long-term solution to the cross-strait conundrum. Two democratic peoples could peacefully manage the question of unification, independence or association. There would be no intractable Taiwan problem if there were no enduring Communist China problem.
Joseph A. Bosco, a national security consultant, specialized in China-Taiwan-U.S. relations at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. He worked for the China desk in Asia- Pacific Security Affairs at the office of the secretary of Defense.