June 7, 2004

June 7, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

Ambivalent Policy: U.S. Leaves China, Taiwan Puzzled on Intentions

In 2001, President George W. Bush's administration dumped the Bill Clinton policy of "strategic ambiguity" on China-Taiwan, but he replaced it with something worse: strategic ambivalence. And this ambivalence is leaving both Beijing and Taipei dangerously confused about American goals in the East Asia.

The Defense Department sees its statutory mission as doing "whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend herself" (as President Bush has so concisely put it) but the U.S. State Department views soothing China as the way to "maintain the status quo as we define it" in the Taiwan Strait.

Foggy Bottom's fight with the Pentagon over China-Taiwan has long been a staple of Washington's policy scene. A feature story about Secretary of State Colin Powell in last month's issue of Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ) magazine cites Powell's top aide, Lawrence Wilkerson, as saying Taiwan is "another place where you get a lot of tension ... because there are literally people from the Defense Department on that island every week ... and have been for three years."

Wilkerson complained that the Pentagon is "delivering messages to Taiwan that Taiwan needn't worry. Meanwhile, we're trying to maintain a more balanced attitude."

But there's no reason for Wilkerson to fear the Pentagon's attitude is "don't worry". The Pentagon's annual report on the "Military Power of the People's Republic of China" issued May 28 describes a rapidly modernizing and highly threatening military machine that has "learned the lessons" of last year's Operation Iraqi Freedom, and is prepared to use them on U.S. forces.

"The focus of China's short- and medium-term conventional modernization efforts," the report warns, "has been to prepare for military contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, to include scenarios involving US military intervention." Moreover, the report is unnervingly candid about Taiwan's vulnerabilities.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, tried to explain the State-Defense frictions to GQ by saying "we use all of the elements together in order to effect policy. They're working always in concert."

But they're not working in concert. As a result, Beijing only hears what it wants to hear. It discounts U.S. insistence that China approach Taiwan peacefully and gives false weight to the administration's lip-service to a "one-China policy."

The problem was complicated further on March 20 by the narrow re-election of Taiwan's pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian. And as U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney prepared for his mid-April visit to China, a senior State Department officer admitted to me that the United States now faces "two new strategic realities" in the Taiwan Strait.

The first is that "independence is now a mainstream political sentiment" in democratic Taiwan. The second is that "China is developing a real military capacity" to fight the United States should Taiwan move toward independence -- a realization that, until recently, the Pentagon had believed was at least several years away.

Cheney's message to Beijing reflected this ambivalence. "We are obligated ... to provide Taiwan with the capacity to defend herself should that become necessary," he said, and behind closed doors reportedly cautioned the Beijing leadership that China's inexorable military modernization makes arms sales "necessary". But the vice president also reassured the Chinese that "we support the principle of one China."

Cheney reportedly came under tremendous pressure from his Chinese counterpart, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, to abandon Taiwan in return for Chinese help on North Korea and terrorism. Cheney responded the following day in a speech at a Shanghai University by praising Beijing's involvement in the North Korea negotiations and its pledges (though not action) to curb its proliferation of dangerous weapon technologies, and gratuitously repeated his non-support of Taiwan independence three separate times.

According to an article published in mid-May by Bonnie Glaser, a respected scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese officials now have the impression that "there is sufficient concern in Washington about [Taiwan independence] that the U.S. may acquiesce in a limited use of force by the PLA - for example, to seize an offshore island, temporarily impose a limited blockade, or fire a lone missile at a military target on Taiwan."

There are moderates in China's leadership, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao for example, who focus on China's economic and social problems and probably argue in internal circles that war in the Taiwan Strait would be a disaster for China. But their concerns are unheeded.

The militarists (led by Jiang Zemin, Military Affairs Commission chairman, and Vice President Zeng, Jiang's capo di capo in the Politburo,) simply point to the success of their toughness. Jiang and Zeng confidently ignored Cheney's complaints about their military build-up and smiled at Cheney's positive response on North Korea, proliferation and Taiwan independence.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon urges Taiwan's leaders to face up to the grave threat from China. In congressional hearings on April 21, assistant secretary of defense Peter Rodman warned that the "PRC is steadily amassing greater military power which could be used to coerce or intimidate Taiwan into a political settlement on its [Beijing's] terms," and that "this modernization is aimed at ... at deterring, countering, or complicating U.S. military intervention."

To that end, Pentagon planners now advise Taiwan to develop a "limited offensive capability" - perhaps including home-grown ballistic missiles - which would at least inject some deterrent factors into China's war planning.

Indeed, the Pentagon's message to Taiwan is, "we'll be with you, but in the first several days of hostilities, you must be strong enough to defend yourselves." President Chen takes that message seriously; his cabinet last week approved Taiwan's $18.6 billion Special Defense Budget.

At his May 20 inauguration, Chen reaffirmed that his government "would not exclude any possibility" in seeking a new relationship between Taiwan and China; the State Department is now says that "the ball is firmly in Beijing's court." The State Department spokesman lauded the speech as "constructive and many of the ideas raised in it were constructive."

The administration must now guard against letting the balance slip in favor of the hard-liners in Beijing and away from the democratic leaders in Taipei. This would only reward bad behavior by the militarists, undermine Beijing's moderates, and instruct China's leaders that the way to get American cooperation is with military threats. At some point, those threats are sure to push the United States too far.

- John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

First appeared in DefenseNews Weekly