June 6, 2003 | Commentary on Asia
Is the Bush administration softening its stance on the China-Taiwan equation? The Bush administration is inclined to tiptoe around Beijing, especially on the question of Taiwan. This, despite congressional testimony on Wednesday by the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, that China is still aiding Iran's chemical-weapon and missile programs; and despite a wildfire whispering campaign spreading through Washington that new intelligence shows China is "implicated, big time," in Iran's development of a heavy-lift rocket -- and, some say, nuclear weapons as well.
America's ambassador to Beijing, Clark Randt, is now in Washington to participate in an assessment of China's assistance to Iran's nuclear-weapon and delivery-system programs. But there is a battle in the administration between the professional China hands, who want to accommodate China's demands on the Taiwan issue, and the arms-control professionals who doubt that China will respond to anything other than heavy sanctions. Failed policies notwithstanding, the accommodationists still seem to have the upper hand.
As a result, President Bush's once tough and clear-eyed Taiwan policy -- formerly known as "do whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself" -- is about to be sacrificed to the hoped-for beneficence of Beijing.
The Bush policy has now come to be known in some corners as (and I'm not making this up): "No support for Taiwan independence, and within that context, if necessary, we will help Taiwan to the extent possible defend itself." The announcement of this new policy came last Sunday evening, as a "senior administration official" briefed a group of American correspondents in France on the 50-minute meeting between Mr. Bush and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, on the margins of the G-8 summit.
According to the American briefer, Mr. Bush told his Chinese counterpart that Iran poses a significant problem that America and China must address. When the reporters asked, "Was there any response from President Hu on that?" the senior official responded, "Not much, really." In short, the Bush-Hu talk was a boring, unproductive session. But at the end of the briefing, the senior official seemed positively disappointed that no one had bothered to ask whether Taiwan came up in the Bush-Hu meeting.
"No questions on Taiwan? You guys asleep?" the senior official chided, drawing nervous tittering among the assembled correspondents. One reporter bit: "What about Taiwan?" To this, the briefer promptly responded that Mr. Bush "repeated" that America has a "policy of a one-China policy based on the three communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, no support for Taiwan independence."
This raised not a few eyebrows in Washington. What is happening is that the administration's China hands are seeking to codify America's China policy under a new construct that links the idea of "supporting one China" with "no support for Taiwan independence" via Public Law 96-8 -- also known as the "Taiwan Relations Act." However, this is hardly a coherent approach. The 1979 law treats Taiwan as a "foreign country, nation, state, government, or similar entity "for the purposes of domestic law, and obliges the president to "maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any use of force" against Taiwan.
Given this, Mr. Bush's assurances left Mr. Hu uneasy. According to the senior official, the Chinese said they "have concerns about forces on Taiwan moving towards independence. "To which the president said, "We don't support independence."
It's not news that the president doesn't "support" Taiwan independence. In April 2001, Mr. Bush said, "My administration strongly supports the one-China policy…I certainly hope Taiwan adheres to the 'one China' policy, and a declaration of independence is not the 'one China' policy." But he said it in the context of cautioning that America would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," adding that "the Chinese must understand that." So it is unsettling that last week he reversed his word order and reportedly assured the Chinese leader that "within the context" of no support for Taiwan independence, "If necessary, we will help Taiwan to the extent possible defend itself."
No matter how you parse them, Mr. Bush's 2001 words, "do whatever it takes," and his reported comments in June 2003 of "within the context," "if necessary," and "to the extent possible," have wildly different meanings. One doesn't have to read between the lines to see that the administration's stance on defending Taiwan is wavering.
I raised this issue with another "senior administration official" who downplayed my concerns.
"I wouldn't read too much into the difference between 'help Taiwan to the extent possible defend itself' and the president's previous statement," he advised. This official linked the new formulation to "some feeling out there "that "Taiwan's inability to purchase systems, do the training, the maintenance, et cetera, for its own defense, makes it much, much harder for us to defend them." The implication being that the new "to the extent possible" formulation is aimed more at prodding Taiwan's government to buy defense equipment than at humoring Beijing.
This interpretation hardly seems plausible. The last person in front of whom Mr. Bush should waffle about the defense of Taiwan is Mr. Hu, especially if Mr. Hu's government is turning a blind eye -- at the least -- to Chinese state corporations' proliferation of nuclear and ICBM rocketry to Iran.
John Tkacik is a research fellow in China policy at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.
Reprinted with permission by The New York Sun