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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Gore Misstates U.S. Role on Taiwan Issue

Policy: His account in debate with Bradley about how low-key American military actions defused a crisis with China is at odds with the record.

March 03, 2000|JIM MANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — During Wednesday night's televised debate with Bill Bradley, Vice President Al Gore presented a version of a 1996 U.S. military crisis with China over Taiwan that is fundamentally at odds with the historical record.

Gore's account misstated the military action the Clinton administration took during the crisis. The vice president also said inaccurately that the administration had defused the crisis through low-keyed actions. In fact, quiet diplomacy did not work, and the crisis was resolved only after a public, well-advertised display of American force.

Gore's remarks raise questions both about how familiar he is with the administration's actions in the Taiwan crisis and whether he may have derived lessons from it that are based on faulty information.

At issue is one of the most important episodes in American foreign policy over the last eight years: the confrontation with China in March 1996 on the eve of Taiwan's first presidential election.

China launched military exercises and fired missiles into the waters off Taiwan in what Clinton administration officials called an effort to intimidate Taiwan. The crisis eased after the administration dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region in the largest display of U.S. military power in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War.

Gore Says Action Defused Situation

In his debate with Bradley, televised nationally from Los Angeles, Gore asserted:

"I was part of the decision that President Clinton and the administration made to quietly, without notice, without ballyhooing it, send the U.S. Pacific Fleet right down--not the entire fleet but send warships--right down the middle of the Taiwan Straits without ballyhooing it.

"And it was a very deft demonstration of diplomacy and power in a way that defused the situation without a word being said and without face being lost anywhere on either side."

His account is at variance with the facts about the 1996 Taiwan crisis in several respects:

During the crisis, the administration sent two aircraft-carrier battle groups to the waters near Taiwan. But these ships did not go through the Taiwan Straits, the highly sensitive waterway between Taiwan and China.

In fact, the ships were under orders not to sail into the straits, because such an action was considered too provocative a step in dealing with China.

"One of the skillful things in choosing the military option was in picking something that wasn't in China's face," explained Stanley Roth, then at the U.S. Institute of Peace and now assistant secretary of State for East Asia.

The vice president's assertion that the administration defused the situation "without ballyhooing it" does not square with the historical record.

Virtually from the moment the carriers were dispatched, the administration went to extraordinary lengths to call attention to what it was doing--thus demonstrating its resolve to China.

The decision to send the two aircraft carriers was made Saturday, March 9, 1996. Over the next 24 hours, Pentagon correspondents were briefed and allowed to report on the deployment of the warships, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher discussed it on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."

"[The decision] was announced rather publicly, by Christopher and by [Defense Secretary William J.] Perry," recalls Robert Suettinger, who served on the National Security Council at the time.

Contrary to Gore's account, words were spoken by top-level U.S. officials, and quite pointedly.

"Beijing should know, and this U.S. fleet will remind them, that while they are a great military power, the strongest, the premier military power in the Western Pacific is the United States," Perry declared in a public session on Capitol Hill.

Over the following days, U.S. military officials flew American reporters to the Independence, one of the two carriers sent to Taiwan, gave them tours and encouraged them to file stories.

In April, during a visit to Japan, Clinton flew to the Independence and told nearly 5,000 sailors aboard it that their mission to Taiwan "gave the world another example of America's power and America's character."

Vice President Was Not at Key Meeting

The vice president said in his remarks Wednesday night that he had played a role in the decision to send the aircraft carriers to Taiwan.

It is possible he was consulted during the crisis. However, the vice president did not participate in the key meeting March 9 at which the decision to send the two aircraft carriers was made.

That session was at the Pentagon. The key participants were Perry, Christopher and Gen. John Shalikashvili, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to interviews with participants that have been reflected in several books on the crisis.

Once this group decided to send the two carriers, their conclusion was cleared quickly with Clinton, officials later said. Gore was with Clinton in California that weekend.

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