December 5, 2003

December 5, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

China Pulls at Bush's Three Pillars

A new and terrifying stridency in China's rhetoric against Taiwan's democracy is shaking at least two of the "Three Pillars" of U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policy on the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Washington. The rhetoric already seems to have rattled Mr. Bush, who reacted by sending a personal messenger to ask Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to rethink his campaign for a referendum on the island's international status.

In recent days, China's state-run media has been full of threats from Chinese generals to go to war against Taiwan, if the doughty island nation persists in its moves toward constitutional reforms--and eventually "independence." For example, Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences warned in an article in Outlook Weekly, a leading Chinese world-affairs journal, that Beijing is willing to pay "six prices" for a war against Taiwan independence.

These include losing the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Expo, as well as much of China's foreign direct investment and a downgrade in relations "with certain countries." Among the other prices Gen. Peng warned Beijing is prepared to pay would be the "loss of personnel and property" along China's prosperous southeastern coast, a temporary economic stagnation or even contraction and "necessary sacrifices" by the People's Liberation Army.

These threats follow a lengthy article in the People's Daily, Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, on Nov. 24, which warned that any referendum on a new constitution for Taiwan would "violate international law." Taiwan is now debating the adoption of a new constitution to replace the one written by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party in Nanking in 1947, and China seems to be laying the legal groundwork for a formal casus belli to justify military moves against the island.

More disturbingly, Beijing says Taiwan's moves to adopt a constitution by 2006 are designed to foment "ethnic divisions," particularly against the minority of Chinese mainlanders who came to the island in the late 1940's, when Mao Zedong's communists ousted Chiang's Nationalists from the mainland. Beijing's insinuation that Taiwan's government is oppressing ethnic mainlanders is ominously reminiscent of Berlin's 1938 claims that the Czech government was oppressing ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland--which Adolf Hitler used as an excuse for the subsequent invasion. It is a signal that cannot go unanswered.

China's bellicosity is a direct challenge to President Bush's landmark "Three Pillars" speech at Whitehall Palace in London on Nov. 19, when he articulated three essential elements for the "peace and security of free nations." These are that international organizations must be equal to the challenges facing them, the willingness of free nations to restrain evil and aggression, by force if necessary, and a strong commitment to the global expansion of democracy.

While President Bush might not have had Taiwan and China in mind at Whitehall, they were certainly in his thoughts during his Nov. 6 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. In that speech, President Bush explicitly praised the expansion of democratic ideals in "in Taiwan and in East Asia" and admitted that "our commitment to democracy is tested in China."

That commitment will be further tested when President Bush hosts Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Washington next week, with Premier Wen already signaling that Taiwan will be top of his agenda. As an expert in financial and agricultural reforms, who probably realizes that the real U.S.-China crises these days revolves around trade and monetary issues, Premier Wen would presumably prefer to focus on other issues. But he is hemmed in by the PLA which, in the absence of a cold war with the Soviet Union, now has nothing better to do than plan for the "Liberation of Taiwan."

It is understandable, then, that President Bush wants to keep a lid on the Taiwan issue. U.S. forces are straining under the weight of the Iraq occupation and the pacification of Afghanistan. There are smoldering tinderboxes in North Korea and Iran. Preventing small controversies from mushrooming into new emergencies is only prudent. So, when faced with Chinese saber-rattling over Taiwan, President Bush's first reaction is to do what former U.S. President Bill Clinton did in 1999--and blame Taiwan.

Last weekend, he sent an aide to Taipei with a personal letter for his Taiwanese counterpart inscribed in fine White House stationery, kindly asking President Chen to avoid taking any actions that would destabilize the Taiwan Strait. Specifically, President Bush asserted that although the U.S. "does not support Taiwan Independence," it "opposes" any referendum in Taiwan that would lead toward independence. Bush administration officials assure me that the U.S. is not opposed to Taiwan's independence per se, but simply opposes anything that would raises tensions. However it is unclear whether this last point was conveyed to President Chen.

The aide who carried the message, James Moriarty, has been described as the architect of this policy. But several inside sources insist that Mr. Moriarty was simply implementing President Bush's wishes, and reminded me that U.S. policy "is set by the president." But Mr. Moriarty cannot escape responsibility for the policy shift so easily. As a serious statesman, President Bush makes his decisions on China issues based on the analyses of his top China aides, and Mr. Moriarty is senior director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the White House.

What Mr. Moriarty should have been advising President Bush is that a bellicose China pulls at the very "Pillars" of his foreign policy. If the U.S. insists--as President Bush stated in his Nov. 19 speech--that free nations must be willing to "restrain aggression and evil by force," then the message to China must be equally clear--that the U.S. cannot allow the world's largest dictatorship to intimidate one of Asia's most vibrant democracies. And if another pillar of U.S. foreign policy is a commitment to the global expansion of democracy, then Washington should applaud Taiwan's moves to supplant a half-century-old constitution, written by a one-party dictatorship on mainland China, with a new constitution more suitable to the multiparty democracy that now exists in Taiwan.

If President Bush is really committed to the "Three Pillars" that he articulated, he needs to stand firm against China's threats of military action against democratic Taiwan. He and other American leaders in both the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress should seize the opportunity provided by Premier Wen's visit next week to forthrightly and candidly address the issue of Taiwan's democracy. That includes reminding Premier Wen that the U.S. does not, and has never, recognized China's sovereignty over Taiwan and will never acknowledge that China has any right to use any military, political or economic force against the island and its people.

It also includes reminding Premier Wen that, as President Bush has already said, the U.S. will do "whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself." This is not just a pillar of foreign policy, but a mandate of the U.S. Congress in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Finally, America's continued military relationship with Taiwan was a condition of Washington's 1978-normalization agreement with the Beijing regime. At the time, this was a bitter pill for the Chinese leadership to swallow, but as one top State Department official has written, "swallow it they did--for strategic reasons."

The United States and China have a common interest in a smooth trade relationship as a major engine of world economic growth. But, in 2003, neither the U.S. nor the world can afford to humor China's generals at the expense of Taiwan in the same way that the Western democracies humored Germany in 1938. Now that President Bush has laid down his marker with Taiwan's president, it's time to be equally firm with the Chinese premier.

By John Tkacik, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, and retired officer in the U.S. Foreign Service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal