December 8, 2003

December 8, 2003 | Commentary on Asia

Wen Comes to Push

The dogs of war are barking as China's No. 2 government official, Premier Wen Jiabao, prepares to meet with President Bush tomorrow.

The barking came last week in Beijing's state-run media: Senior Chinese military officers howled that Taiwan's leaders' recent talk of a public referendum on political independence from China had pushed the island toward the "abyss of war" with the People's Republic of China (PRC).

(China and Taiwan have been separated since the 1949 Nationalist-Communist civil war, but Beijing claims that the self-ruled, democratic island is a renegade province of the PRC. It has threatened to attack if Taiwan ever formally declares its independence from China.)

Just what we need, atop the War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea: A crisis across the Taiwan Strait between 1.3 billion Chinese on the mainland and 23 million Taiwanese.

The United States is legally obligated (by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act) to assist in Taiwan's defense. And in April 2001, President Bush clarified American intent a bit more when he said we will do whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself against Chinese aggression.

But concern is growing that Taiwan's President Chen Shui-Bian, who faces a very tight race for re-election in March, will do something provocative to swing independence-minded voters toward his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket, thereby dragging the United States into an unnecessary war in Asia.

This issue - not pressing Sino-U.S. trade matters, such as a ballooning trade deficit and market access for American firms, and not the North Korean nuclear problem - is likely to be the centerpiece of tomorrow's Bush-Wen talks.

Wen, in office only since March, will have to make a ruckus over Taiwan if only to prove to the Chinese People's Liberation Army that he's no patsy for Taiwan or America. He'll also push Bush to stop arms sales to Taiwan and rein in President Chen - and remind Washington of the importance of Beijing's help in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem.

In the face of a barrage of well-scripted Chinese talking points, President Bush would be prudent to remind Wen that there is a steady hand on the tiller of U.S.-China-Taiwan policy, specifically:

  • There has been no change in U.S. policy: America's recognition of the PRC was, and is still, based on the premise that Taiwan's future will be determined peacefully and by mutual agreement of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. China's deployment of 500 ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan undermines that foundation. So, Mr. Wen, call off the dogs.
  • America will respond to China's military buildup by continuing to sell arms to Taiwan to maintain the military balance across the Taiwan Strait. The choice of an arms race is Beijing's. And the security of the first democracy in Chinese history (i.e., Taiwan) is in America's interest.
  • Washington has a robust, mature relationship with the government of Taiwan, and this serves everybody's interest. It is Washington's expectation that Taiwan, like China, will do nothing to destabilize the peaceful status quo across the Taiwan Strait - especially for domestic political purposes. Chinese threats will only strengthen Taiwan's call for independence.
  • The United States appreciates China's assistance with the North Korean nuclear dilemma. But considering China's proximity to North Korea and the effect of a war along China's periphery, Wen should not lose sight of the fact that a peaceful, nuclear-free Korean peninsula is in China's interest at least as much as it is in America's.

A strong diplomatic message to both Taipei and Beijing is needed to prevent the possibility of misperception and miscalculation by either party, which could easily spark a major conflict.

The United States seeks a cooperative, constructive relationship with China. It doesn't need another crisis at the moment. The timing of tomorrow's meeting is fortuitous: It gives Bush a chance to lay it on the line with one of China's most important officials.

A strong showing by the president in tomorrow's trans-Pacific tete-a-tete will bring this potential crisis in for a soft landing, allowing us to focus our energies on America's real challenges abroad.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

The capture of Saddam Hussein is reason for real celebration for the Bush administration and for the Iraqi people, but its effect on the War on Terror is unclear.

Of course it's a boon for stability, reconstruction and democracy in Iraq, but beyond that it's too early to tell.

Saddam's capture could persuade Syrian and Iranian leaders that their support for terrorism, in the form of such rogues as Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and al Qaeda, is a fool's errand and will likely resign their fate, as well, to the despot dustbin of history.

And if Saddam decides to cooperate with his debriefers, we could learn a tremendous amount about the questions that tug at our intellects daily, such as the organization of the resistance network in Iraq, Iraq's relationship with terrorist organizations, and, of course, the fate of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD.)

Information about Iraq's role in terrorism, now and in the past, would help us unravel the fabric of the world's terrorist network. And have Saddam's WMDs question been spirited to Syria or Lebanon's Bekaa Valley or buried deep in the Iraqi desert?

But the War on Terror continues. Word of an assassination attempt on Pakistan's President Musharaff, who sided with the United States against al Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11, shows that this struggle is not over by any stretch of the imagination.

Considering Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and its border with Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia (another potential hotspot inhabited by the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the radical fundamentalist group Hizb ut Tahrir), the country is arguably one of the most important in the War on Terror.

And if that news isn't enough: A U.N. panel has reportedly warned of a continuing, lucrative funding stream to terrorists, including drug money. A separate report by the the U.S. General Accounting Office squealed on Sunday that the Justice and Treasury Departments are still struggling with understanding and stemming the flow of terrorist blood money, especially where terrorist groups are using commodities, such as diamonds, gems, or gold, to move money internationally.

The U.N. report also warned that al Qaeda "has already taken the decision to use chemical and biological weapons in their forthcoming attacks. The only constraint they are facing is the technical complexity to operate them properly and effectively."

This means that it isn't getting their clammy mitts on weapons of mass destruction, it's how to use them properly to kill the most people possible. So it's not a question of if, but a question of when, some innocent civilians will suffer the fate of these horrible weapons at the hands of al Qaeda or one of its international franchises, such as Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiya.

Bagging Saddam is great news, but it's not Miller time yet. It's one less face hanging in the rogue's gallery, but letting our guard down in Iraq, or elsewhere, for even a second could be disastrous.


Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post.