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Bush Scraps China Policy of Six Presidents

April 28, 2002|JAY TAYLOR | Jay Taylor was State Department director of analysis for East Asia and the Pacific and deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and research in the Reagan administration.

ARLINGTON, Va. — Last year, with U.S. attention riveted on the Middle East and terrorism, the Bush administration quietly revised the "one China" policy of six previous presidents. Seeing China as our potential No.1 enemy, the Pentagon prepared the way for the United States to kill millions of Chinese, if necessary, to protect the separate status of Taiwan. Beijing is angry. But only a few months after this policy change was highlighted in the leaked Nuclear Posture Review, the administration is hosting Vice President Hu Jintao, the likely next president of China, this week in Washington. In either capital, does the left hand know what the right is doing?

Over the past year, one-China traditionalists in the administration successfully moved U.S.-China relations ahead, not the least because they were overwhelmingly supported by U.S. business and by the president's father. Economic ties between China and the United States continued to expand. The two countries closely cooperated on a range of issues, from Korea to terrorism, and Washington handled bilateral crises with patient diplomacy. As in the past, the U.S. government preferred jawboning to sanctions in pressing China to improve its human-rights record.

For almost 30 years, creative ambiguity was at the heart of the one-China policy: The United States warned China not to use force to resolve the Taiwan issue but did not categorically pledge to defend the island regardless of Taiwan's position on sovereignty. The U.S. assured China that it would not support or recognize Taiwan's independence but, at the same time, continued shipping advanced weapons to the island for its self-defense. This balanced approach provided a framework for U.S.-China detente, for Taiwan's remarkable economic growth and democratization, and for the stunning expansion of cross-strait business, social, and cultural relations. Coupled with dramatic changes inside China, these developments also directly contributed to the opening of China's closed society. From Richard M. Nixon through Bill Clinton, U.S. administrations believed that the one-China policy would lead eventually to a peaceful agreement formalizing, in some loose manner, the unity of China and Taiwan, and that this would be in the U.S. interest.

But early on, the Bush administration made repeated categorical pledges to do "whatever it takes" to protect the island. The rationale behind this change was the belief among the Pentagon's top civilians that Taiwan is a strategic platform that must be denied to the emerging power of East Asia, the most dangerous potential rival to U.S. global preeminence. The administration declared that it still accepted the one- China principle, but it asserted as late as January that Taipei was free to reject the principle, as it has done since 1999.

While ending the ambiguity on Taiwan's defense, the administration has muddied the waters on the previously clear U.S. opposition to the island's independence. This switch was long advocated by leading revisionists on China, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and John Bolton, an undersecretary in the State Department. Evidence of the change is not hard to find. For the first time since 1978, the State Department last year permitted Taiwan's president, vice president and premier to hold separate meetings with U.S. lawmakers on American soil. Most recently, the Taiwan defense minister held a "non-official" meeting with Wolfowitz in Florida.

China protested these departures from the one-China policy as "hegemonic acts of gross interference." But Beijing has not threatened a major breakdown in relations, much less heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait. China dearly wants to avoid any such crisis. Its booming economy depends in large part on America's continuing purchase of more than $80 billion in Chinese-made products and huge capital investments in China. Beijing puts great stock in hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, and nothing spoils an Olympics like a war or even a whiff of its possibility. Furthermore, a new Chinese leadership will be chosen in the fall, and the incumbent pragmatists, led by President Jiang Zemin, and the incoming ones, led by Hu, do not want a building sense of national grievance against the United States to play into the hands of the more conservative faction, which would be happy to exchange nationalism for prosperity as the main raison d'etre of the regime.

Meanwhile, China has substantially enhanced its prestige and influence in East Asia through diplomacy and, in some cases, financial aid. It does not want to see this trend upset by an upsurge in tensions in the strait. Almost certainly, the Peoples Liberation Army has urged the regime to delay any showdown over Taiwan.

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