There is a well-known history of enmity and even war between the United States and China in the decades immediately following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Still, by the early 1970s American China specialists and some other interested observers concluded that it was sensible and indeed essential to normalize relations with PRC. Moreover, a growing belief developed in the United States that, despite serious differences, the U.S. and PRC had no strategic interests so divergent that a long-term confrontational or hostile relationship was inevitable. There were still important problems, of course, over human rights, some key aspects of nonproliferation policy, and economic relations. But each of these was seen as potentially manageable, and, as time passed, the plusses were seen to strongly outweigh the minuses.
There is one issue, however, where the risks remain especially grave, the lack of trust particularly deep, and ultimate objectives seen by many on both sides as fundamentally incompatible. It is an issue so serious that, if not properly handled, it poses a genuine risk of military confrontation, even war. That issue, of course, is Taiwan.
This paper explores American attitudes toward Taiwan and tries to explain (initially for a Chinese audience) why this issue that Chinese consider solely an “internal” matter nonetheless involves strategic American interests, as well. It suggests that Sino-American dialogue at the highest level needs to address the question of each side’s strategic intentions, the long-term vision each side has about its own role and the role it envisages for the other. And it needs to address frankly the concerns of both sides about the future of Taiwan – not to repeat the warnings that both will inevitably continue to issue regarding “red lines”, but at a minimum to ensure that there are no misperceptions, and no miscalculations, that could trigger dangerous confrontation where none need exist