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'Dangerous Straits'
With Gideon Joseph
Producer, "Frontline"

Friday, Oct. 19, 2001; 11 a.m. EDT

Prior to Sept. 11, President Bush's biggest foreign policy challenge to date was China. The downing of a U.S. surveillance plane over China's coast earlier this year raised both suspicions and the stakes in a relationship already tense over issues from Chinese support for some Islamic states considered U.S. enemies to American support for Taiwan. According to one China expert, the Straits of Taiwan are "one of the most dangerous places in the world."

In "Dangerous Straits," airing on PBS Thursday, Oct. 18 at 9 p.m., Frontline examines the U.S.'s relationship with China -- where it will stand in the worldwide "war on terrorism" and the multinational coalition sought by Bush, who is scheduled to visit there this month.

Television documentary producer Gideon Joseph co-produced the program. He was online to talk about what he uncovered on Friday, Oct. 19.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Good morning, Gideon, and thanks for joining us. President Bush met face-to-face with President Jiang Zemin and expressed his confidence that China would stand as an ally in the war on terrorism. That's quite an about-face from U.S. relations with China earlier this year. Do you expect this to be a true alliance of purpose, or do you think both sides are publicly investing in the appearance of an alliance for their own gain?

Gideon Joseph: I think the answer to that question is yes and no. I think China has a great deal to gain from a close alliance with America, and this is one of the bigger points we tried to raise in our film -- winning the Olympics, entering the WTO and trying to maintain a healthy economic development -- underlying reasons for China to be genuinely concerned and committed to America's war on terrorism. However, it would be naive to think that China has no vested interest in voicing support for America, because there are issues, such as human rights, arms proliferation and the issue of Kashmir, to which China would like America to perhaps become more sympathetic -- or at least see China's perspective on these matters.

So the answer is, yes and no, as with most things in politics.

Alexandria, Va.: Have the Moslems of northern China embraced Islamic fundamentalism?

Gideon Joseph: They're from western China rather than northern China -- the preponderance of Muslims in China. Again, according to most experts, there are different varieties of Muslims within China, of which a very very small proportion, many of whom are located on the Pakistan or Afghanistan border with China, have embraced terrorist activities like that espoused by the al Qaeda network. However, for the most part, the Muslims who reside in the western regions of China would not be considered fundamentalist in the sense that we attribute to the bin Ladens of this world.

London, England: How will America's policy on human rights in China be changed in the light of recent events? Moslems are being oppressed in the northwest of the country, executed for protesting against Chinese rule. In American eyes are they now terrorists or freedom fighters?

Gideon Joseph: I think America's policy toward China as a whole is still unclear. I think the agenda that President Bush might have taken with him to Shanghai prior to Sept. 11 could well have included issues such as human rights. However, I think it would be unlikely that it will be the main priority for the Bush administration on this visit. It strikes me that the main aim of the Bush administration is to try and get China's support for the war on terrorism, but more specifically, to preclude China from in any way aiding countries with which it has economic links from getting involved in the conflict.

Sacramento, Calif.: If the U.S. continues its path in support of China and its trade issues, what will that mean to the U.S. economy?

What will support of China mean to Taiwan's freedoms and democracy? AND...ultimately the U.S.?

Seemingly the U.S. has no choice but to support and reach out to China, as it has the number-one GNP, however, shouldn't WTO bear large responsibility in making sure that democratic issues will be seriously protected ABOVE the economic rewards from worldwide interaction with China?

Will China be the next world power? Will U.S. children become servants to Chinese ideology?

Gideon Joseph: The answer to this question gets to the fundamental dilemma facing America in its relationship with China. As we show in the program, there is a conflict at the heart of the American government between those who wish to embrace China for its economic potential, and see its development as a pluralistic democracy as coming from economic development, as opposed to those located in the Pentagon who would wish to create China as a new threat to America's security interests.

Taiwan presents itself as a rather intractable problem for America, because it stands in the midst of this internal conflict within the American government. Taiwan's undoubtedly democratic society will be protected by the United States. But it is still unclear at what point America's overriding need to allow China to become a part of the world's international community will surmount this desire to defend Taiwan.

I think it is too early to say whether China will become a greater power than America. But it is certainly worth saying that China's economic potential and its military might could well shape part of the next century.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Regarding the Taiwan issue, the program started out by saying that "U.S. recognizes that Taiwan is part of China," which is incorrect. In all three communiques signed between the U.S. and China, the U.S. has only "acknowledged" "the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China." Omitting the phrase "Chinese position" delivers a totally different impression.

Gideon Joseph: That is accurate. I think we were trying to illustrate the broader point that America finds itself in a difficult position because it sticks to a one-China policy but also is providing weaponry to Taiwan. For most viewers, we hoped this would show the difficult balancing act America has to deal with in regard to China and Taiwan.

The Hague, The Netherlands: Regrettably your documentary seems to reduce Taiwan to a piece in the chess game between the U.S. and China.

It also makes insufficient distinction between us native Taiwanese (85 percent of the population) and the Chinese mainlanders, who came over with Chiang Kai-shek after WW II, and repressed us for more than 40 years.

We Taiwanese want our homeland to be recognized as a full and equal member of the international community. We want to live in peace with all our neighbors (including China).

Will the U.S. be courageous enough to take the first step toward normalization of relations with Taiwan? We believe it is high time.

Mei-chin Chen
The Hague, The Netherlands

Gideon Joseph: The answer to this question is that we did try and represent the strongly held views of many within Taiwan who wish that Taiwan becomes an independent state, separated from the mainland. In fact, the premier of Taiwan tells us directly that Taiwan is an independent state. However, while we were in Taiwan, it became apparent that there is also a large body of people who do not wish Taiwan to become independent, and would very much like there to be closer links with the Chinese mainland -- both economically and politically. I do not think we simply displayed Taiwan as a pawn. We tried very hard to balance all parties' voices in the documentary.

Washington, D.C.: How would you characterize Sino-Russian relations?

Are close Sino-Russian ties a threat to either U.S.-Russia relations or Sino-U.S. relations? It seems to me that a stronger Russia-China link can't help but undermine America's bilateral relations with both Moscow and Beijing.

Gideon Joseph: I think one of the things that the Bush administration has very much endeavored to cultivate is a close relationship with President Putin. In part, this is because of Russia's need for American financial support. But also because post-end of the Cold War, Russia and certainly some of the former Soviet states present themselves as strategic locations for America's military. Further, Russia's dire economic situation, one would hope, would not be made even worse by a close relationship with China. Equally, China's growing economic ties with America will not be, in my opinion, jeopardized by a cozying up of China with Russia.

Kendall Park, N.J.: This is a good program by assessing the Chinese stance toward Taiwan in depth. By holding on Taiwan under the name of national sovereignty, China holds on domestic coherence and maintains stability within her diverse ethnic parameter.

However, when illustrating the free will of people in Taiwan, the program, similar to the "tug of war" does not point out Taiwanese people's fearful experience of external invasions that came from the historical Dutch, Manchuria empire, and Japanese colonialism. This is the blindspot that both Chinese and Americans do not understand Taiwanese and tend to ignore.

The root of conflict between China and Taiwan is not only tracked back to the Chinese Civil War between the Communist party and the Nationalists that fled to Taiwan right after 1946. As mentioned above, this is just the most recent cause but not all.

Without knowing Taiwan in depth historically, the U.S. puts herself in the position to confront Chinese patriotists and brings up frustration to Taiwanese who seek for freedom and democracy.

The U.S. government, instead, should be able to play as a sophisticated mediator that resolves the regional tension by networking with local pacifist organizations to promote mutual understanding. I consider this as a loss of the U.S. interest in Far East by the U.S. only dealing with the national authorities and business representatives. This is the same lesson we all have learned regarding the indigenous people's backlash to the U.S.'s intervention in the Middle East.

Last, I would suggest to the program producer to highlight the argument why abiding by the Taiwan Relation Act to keep a de-facto independent Taiwan feeds the U.S.'s interest. This controversial point is not deliberated enough in the current program.

Thank you for producing such a fine work.

Tony Chu

Gideon Joseph: I think the answer to this question is that America does not have a ready-made solution to the Taiwan problem. As many of the people we interviewed told us, there is no easy end game. And that is why people must not forget that prior to Sept. 11, this was the most intractable problem that America faced overseas. I do not know how the Taiwan issue will be resolved. But my sense is that all parties concerned have such huge interests in maintaining peace that the likelihood of military conflict is less now than it was back during the 1996 missile crisis.

I hope we did not ignore the views of "regular" Taiwanese people. We did talk to a huge number of them. And I do not believe there is a clear sense of how to resolve the situation amongst these people either.

With regard to your point about pacifist movements -- in all societies there are groups who may be excluded from the political dialogue. And there is no doubt that much of Asia's politics is determined by economic and business-oriented issues. I think it would be very useful and important for these groups to be heard. I'm just not sure if our program was the correct forum in which to discuss their points of view.

Seattle, Wash.: Dear Mr. Joseph,

I thought the treaty between the U.S. and Taiwan stated that any country including communist China attacks on Taiwan, the U.S. will consider attack on its soil. Therefore, doesn't the U.S. have obligations to defend Taiwan?

There was no mention of Tibet. When Secretary Powell testified early this year in Congress he mentioned that the administration will support Tibet for the human rights and religious freedom. How come there is not a word mentioned in the program?

Sam Freeman.

Gideon Joseph: With regard to the first point, it is true that America will defend Taiwan if it is attacked. But it is certainly not guaranteed to support Taiwan should Taiwan declare independence. This is an important distinction. If Taiwan does declare independence, I believe the consequences could be more serious, and would certainly place America in a very precarious position.

With regard to Tibet, we did not as producers feel that this was a program which could encompass such an important and complex issue as Tibet. And one of the bigger aims of the program was to introduce the American audience to some of the meta-issues that confront President Bush and his policies toward Asia.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Bush is in Shanghai ostensibly to talk finances with the other leaders of the developed world. Yet some of us of aging warriors who served in the military during the Cold War days of Vietnam just see this trip as a peace offering to China for shooting our reconnaissance airplane down. Does anyone in the Bush II administration see that this could be a prelude to a mainland invasion of Taiwan? We've been here before. After all, it was the Bush I ambassador who let Saddam infer that we had no interest in Kuwait that led to that armed conflict and subsequent painful muddle. How many times will we repeat these lessons? Thanks much.

Gideon Joseph: There are a nexus of competing interests that the president faces when making decisions about his Asia policy. Undoubtedly, these issues are a mixture of economic, politics and military interests. What makes China so much more difficult to gauge is that it is in a process of huge social change itself, and its own leaders are not 100 percent sure of its future development. To deny that China may try and "take back" Taiwan if it declares independence would be foolish. In fact, some analysts see it as the last resort of a Chinese leader who may find himself confronting internal social strife. But it is simply too early both in the Bush presidency and in the development of China's "capitalist" economy to know how the future will develop. One thing is for certain: if you add this problem to Sept. 11, we now all know we live in a complex and potentially scary world.

Fairfax, Va.: Last night's program never mentioned the immense logistical difficulties that China would face in attempting to invade Taiwan, an operation that is sometimes called the "million-man swim." Do you believe that it's possible for China to successfully invade the main island of Taiwan? Or are Chinese threats and American countermeasures mostly for show?

Gideon Joseph: The answer to that question is that it would be difficult for China to win a war with Taiwan in a very short space of time, because Taiwan's defense is completely predicated on withholding a Chinese attack for several weeks until, they hope, American support would arrive. The sale of more arms by the U.S. to Taiwan will undoubtedly strengthen Taiwan's defense, and will clearly make China consider a potential attack on Taiwan more carefully. That said, China's military does have an enormous number of soldiers and weaponry, which could overpower most armies.

Charlottesville, Va.: "Dangerous Straits" was great, very informative and accessible coverage of very complex issues at play in U.S.-Chinese relations.

Do you think that in an odd way the terrorist provocations, and Bush's widening coalition in response, can begin to feed new opportunities in international relations, in spite of former tensions and divergent political philosophies? The complexities of Taiwan noted, there are also the factors of Jiang's impending end of office. Could the East and West, and the Mideast in between, actually make progress based on a moderation in ecomonic factors and against the extremism seen in the recent terrorist acts?

Gideon Joseph: The optimist in me would like to think that Sino-U.S. relations may well find themselves at a watershed, akin to Nixon's visit of 1972. Because Sept. 11 is so close to where we are now, it is impossible to know the true significance of Chinese support for America in its war against terrorism. However, Sept. 11 aside, there are many signs that China is very keen for an amicable relationship with the West in general. And undoubtedly, this is fueled by its desire for rapid economic expansion. China's position with regard to countries in the Middles East and in Asia may also determine the closeness of its relationship with America. And if China sides with America in its attitudes toward some of these countries, then Sino-U.S. relations may well have reached a historic crossroads.

London, UK: A big question this one -- with China embracing the market economy, does Mr. Joseph believe it will as a result also eventually embrace democracy? Or will China remain a free-market but authoritarian society?

Second, having made this programme, is Mr. Joseph more or less optimistic about U.S./Chinese relations?

From Ed Morgan, London

Gideon Joseph: With regard to the first question, it is clear to any Westerner who visits China at the moment that despite China's enormous economic development, there is still a restriction on both the freedom of the press and on any form of pluralistic political debate. The reason that the Chinese government gives for these restrictions is in part a need to maintain social stability among a population of nearly 1.3 billion. While this may be in part a truthful reflection of the need to maintain social order, I do believe that there will be an inevitable move toward some form of democracy as people's incomes and personal freedoms in the economic sphere gather a pace. The 2008 Olympics may well prove itself to be a watershed for the Chinese government, because the thought of thousands of journalists arriving and being precluded from reporting on Chinese life strikes one as almost unthinkable.

I would say I am more optimistic in one sense about U.S.-Chinese relations. The sight of Chinese men and women buying Prada and Gucci handbags at a mall on one of the main streets did not lead me to believe that America and China would soon be at war. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that a push by Taiwan for independence could bring my optimism straight back to pessimism. I hope I will be invited back to gauge my optimism in years to come.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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