Don’t underestimate the size of the Taiwan problem. As with the two other divided Asian nations — Korea and Vietnam — past U.S. policies mean there is every chance of eventual escalation into full-scale hostilities.

By any normal standard, Taiwan should be part of China. Before Japan’s forceful colonization in 1895, Taiwan had been ruled by China. The so-called Taiwanese dialect used by the majority of the population is in fact the Fukien dialect of mainland China.

For over 40 years the entire population has also been educated in mainland Chinese culture and language. In the streets of Taipei, even the touts speak better Mandarin Chinese — the north Chinese dialect now standard throughout China — than you will hear in most of mainland China. Taiwan is much more “Chinese” than Hong Kong. For much of the past half century its government has been insisting that it is indeed part of China.

Enter the United States. In January 1950, after the former incompetent and corrupt Chinese Nationalist government had been thoroughly defeated by its Communist rivals and had retreated ingloriously to Taiwan, U.S. President Harry Truman said unambiguously in a rare Cold War moment of truth that: “The U.S. will not pursue a course which will lead to involvement in the civil conflict in China. The U.S. will not provide military aid or advice to Chinese forces on Formosa (Taiwan).”

Six months later, with the outbreak of Cold War hostilities in Korea, the same president sent the U.S. Seventh Fleet to aid a Taiwan determined to continue its civil conflict with communist China. And this was despite the fact that Beijing had nothing to do with the outbreak of Korean hostilities.

The U.S. also went on to recognize the government in Taiwan as the sole legitimate government of China at a time when that government was advertising its ability to run commando and sabotage raids into mainland China.

True, the U.S. in the 1970s moved to its current position of recognizing Beijing as the sole legitimate government of a China that includes Taiwan. Sales of weapons to Taiwan were to be cut.

But the U.S. then promptly contradicted itself by increasing the sales of weapons, and by saying it would use force to prevent Beijing using force against Taiwan.

Since Beijing says it will only use force against Taiwan if the island seeks independence, Washington in effect provides a carte blanche for any Taiwanese regime that wants to declare itself independent of China.

Washington says it will do what it can to prevent Taiwan seeking independence. But that is today’s promise. It would not bind any future administration, especially one run by the rightwing Republicans now bent on arming Taiwan and encouraging it to break away from China.

Toward the two other divided Asian nations — Vietnam and Korea — the U.S. has shown the same dangerous ambivalence. In 1945, the U.S. endorsed an agreement for the temporary division of the Korean Peninsula into communist and noncommunist areas. But it then went on to support and recognize an anticommunist South Korean government that did not recognize the division of Korea. That government also claimed the right to use force to gain reunification.

Then when North Korea decided to use force for just the same purpose, the US cried aggression, implying that there was indeed an internationally recognized border between North and South. But when the U.S.-led forces intervened to help the South conquer the North, Washington said that the border had lost all meaning, only to revert to its previous, and present, position, namely that the border does have meaning, when that victory was denied by Chinese intervention.

In Vietnam, a 1954 international agreement stated clearly that the line of division between North and South was temporary, with reunification through elections two years later. But the U.S. decided to ignore that agreement and to sponsor an anticommunist government in the South which, as in Korea, claimed sole legitimacy and the right to reunite the nation by force.

Then when the North set out do exactly the same, relying more on indirect force, the U.S. once again cried aggression and the right to intervene.

One can understand U.S. motives for this chopping and changing — a belief that any policy was justified if it slowed the spread of world communism. But the result was to inflict even more harm on a war-torn Asia. In Korea it led to a savage war, a bitterly divided nation and hostilities that still fester. In Vietnam it led to a humiliating defeat for the U.S. after an equally savage war.

To date, Taiwan has been spared serious harm thanks to its island location and U.S. willingness to use nuclear or warship threats whenever the island seemed to come under any threat. But it would be wrong to ignore Beijing’s deep sense of injustice over past and present U.S. policies, or China’s determination to regain what it has always seen as it’s rightful territory.

To date Beijing has been prepared to wait and see, in the belief that close cultural and now economic ties, plus the promise of Hong Kong style autonomy, would be enough to bring Taiwan back to the fold.

But with Taiwan’s current president, the elderly, pro-Japan and pro-U.S., Lee Teng Hui, seeking to push Taiwan toward independence, Beijing’s patience is clearly becoming frayed.

Combine this with an assertive U.S. military seeking post-Cold War enemies, and a U.S. establishment that now sees itself as the sole repository of global virtue, and the potential for very dangerous confrontation is unlimited.

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