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No one can offer an easy answer to the problem of Taiwan’s future status. In any case, what model could be followed? Independence from the United States? From China? The model of Hong Kong? Puerto Rico? Korea?

By and large, the history of independence movements is not inspiring. At the beginning of our century, the Japanese militated for Korean independence from China, uttering many noble sentiments on the way to annexing it. The Americans too made noble-sounding arguments as to why the Philippines and Cuba had to be independent of Spain. But these high-minded rescuers turned out to be sorry variations of the powers they replaced, and in some senses even worse. If Tibet becomes independent, will it gravitate into India's sphere? Will the Indians, or the Americans, base nuclear weapons there?

The arms trade is, to far too great an extent, a major determinant of our foreign policy. And the deal for Taiwan has always been, as it has been for Japan, we'll open our markets and not invade yours; we’ll make you rich, but only if you participate in our military programs, weapons, bases, support our positions, and back our wars. I think we need to improve the climate. We need international arms-trade restrictions, no less than we need them inside our own country. We need to eliminate the profit incentive in arms sales. We need to subject the traffic to strict legal limits, and we need to democratize the process by opening secret transactions to public view.

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This argument is supported in two recent books: Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Asian specialist Chalmers Johnson, and Patrick Tyler's A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China — An Investigative History. Tyler was the New York Times Beijing Bureau Chief 1993 – 97.

In Blowback, Johnson writes: "America's cold warriors continue to exacerbate tensions between the mainland and Taiwan through incessant saber-rattling.… Some of this is done for partisan political advantage in the United States, some in hopes of selling extremely expensive if sometimes untested advanced weapons systems.… Some of it is instigated by paid lobbyists for Taiwan, which seeks to ensure that the United States would be drawn into any conflict in the area, even if Taiwan's own policies provoked it."

Tyler quotes an outburst by Reagan’s secretary of state Alexander Haig in 1981: "‘John, get it through your thick head — we are going to sell arms to the People's Republic of China in September so that we can sell arms to Taiwan in January — so get off your ass.’" "John" was Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge. Tyler also writes: "The Reagan team never appreciated how much their campaign to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan threatened to undermine Beijing's legitimate efforts to end the Chinese civil war." Tyler is referring to Marshal Ye Jianying's September 1981 offer of virtual autonomy to Taiwan.

I commend both authors for speaking honestly about, and in that sense taking some citizen responsibility for, acts of our own government that have caused or exacerbated conflict and war. For further reading, see Arthur Miller's All My Sons or recent reports of the Osprey crash that claimed the lives of nineteen young U.S. Marines. Will the freely elected Taiwan government be freely insisting on buying Ospreys with freely borrowed taxpayer money?

What Johnson and Tyler are getting at is that arms merchants thrive on trouble. And the politicians give them plenty of attention. I regret that the WTO protesters have yet to pick up on this issue in a major way, but the May Day mass demonstrations in Germany certainly targeted German arms sales. The American press overlooked these demos, however. Our foreign policy has long been hostage to the Military Industrial Complex. The current policy of overloading the island of Taiwan with armaments is a strategy that may backfire because it heightens tensions and precludes reasonable negotiation. It is a provocative policy that puts Americans as well as Chinese at risk.

Moss Roberts is a professor of Chinese at New York University. This is a slightly edited version of a message that appeared on the H-Asia list.