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Bush stirs Taiwan tempest

Tribune staff reporter

President Bush committed the United States to defending Taiwan militarily against China, removing a deliberate layer of uncertainty from the U.S. posture toward the island republic and introducing a new point of friction in the already tense U.S. relations with Beijing.

Responding to a flurry of criticism that Bush had suddenly and dangerously escalated the U.S. defense commitment in Asia, the White House said Bush's remarks fit in with U.S. policy going back to the Nixon administration. At the same time, Bush's aides said the president wanted to make good on his campaign promise to be clearer about U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan.

In a series of media interviews throughout the day, Bush said with various levels of emphasis that the United States was ready to help Taiwan defend itself, including the use of U.S. military force if necessary.

China experts and some Democratic lawmakers reacted with alarm, saying the president's remarks represented a sharp break from the policy of six previous presidents and could greatly complicate the already delicate state of Sino-U.S. relations in the wake of the controversy over China's detention of a Navy air crew.

Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America" program, Bush was asked if the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China.

"Yes we do, and the Chinese must understand that." Asked if he meant he would defend Taiwan with the full force of the U.S. military, Bush said, "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself."

In later interviews with The Associated Press and CNN, Bush placed more emphasis on helping Taiwan defend itself than on the U.S. intervening. But asked directly if he would use U.S. military force against China in defense of Taiwan, he told AP that is "certainly an option."

A senior administration official said the president stood by his comments on "Good Morning America" and attributed the differences in his remarks not to any pullback by the White House, but to differences in the way questions were posed to Bush.

Behind the scenes, however, the White House was clearly concerned that Bush's initial comments went too far. Bush taped the interview with "Good Morning America" on Tuesday, and White House aides alerted Pentagon and State Department officials that Bush had made some comments about China in an interview that they feared might be overemphasized in media reports.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush's statements could cause problems "if the Taiwanese get a hold of it and decide to hype it, or if the Chinese decided to make an issue of it." In the short term, the official said, China's desire for a favorable vote in Congress to uphold China's normal trading status with the U.S. may limit the reaction from Beijing.

The comments by Bush came just days after he approved a robust arms package for Taiwan that could include eight diesel-powered submarines, a dozen sub-hunting aircraft, and four destroyers capable of launching guided missiles.

In Beijing Wednesday, China's Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing summoned U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher to protest the arms offer. Li said the sale should be canceled on grounds that it would seriously affect U.S.-Chinese cooperation on arms control and damage ties between the two nations, state television reported. There was no immediate reaction in China to Bush's comments.

The Bush administration has made no progress, meanwhile, in persuading Beijing to return the Navy EP-3E surveillance aircraft that made an emergency landing in China April 1 after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet.

Reading the administration on China and Taiwan is no easy matter. While approving the arms sales, for example, Bush also declined for now Taiwan's request for more sophisticated destroyers equipped with Aegis radar. In an interview with The Washington Post published Wednesday, Bush said he would end the practice of conducting an annual review of Taiwan's defense needs, opting instead to make decisions on arms sales to Taiwan on an as-needed basis.

Taiwan, an island republic of 22 million, was the refuge of the Nationalist Kuomintang forces in the 1949 Chinese Revolution that saw the mainland, now with 1.2 billion people, taken over by Communists. Ever since, Beijing has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province. Washington acknowledges there is only one China but says reunification must take place peacefully.

In the 22 years since the United States formally recognized China and no longer recognized Taiwan, no other president has made so direct a statement about whether the United States would defend the island.

This "strategic ambiguity" was deliberate. It was designed to prevent Taiwan from becoming so confident in its security that it declared its independence from China, a move that could spark war. And it left Beijing uncertain as to what might happen if it tried to take Taiwan by force.

Bush on Wednesday appeared to be struggling to hew to that longstanding policy while also making a more explicit commitment to Taiwan.

"I will do what it takes to help Taiwan defend herself, and the Chinese must understand that," Bush told CNN. "At the same time," he said, "we support the one-China policy, where we expect and hope and believe there will be peaceful resolution to any differences of opinion." In the AP interview, Bush referred to China and Taiwan as "two nations," even though the U.S. does not formally recognize Taiwan as a country.

The Bush administration tried to calm reactions to the president's remarks by saying there was no change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The president himself even made that point in one of his later interviews.

But China experts and some lawmakers begged to differ.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rushed to the Senate floor Wednesday to accuse Bush of "making major changes in American policy without any consultation whatsoever with Congress." Kerry said Bush's statement might actually threaten Taiwan's security rather than enhance it by eliminating the flexibility Washington might otherwise have in a crisis.

"We have been deliberately vague about the circumstances under which we would come to Taiwan's defense, not only to discourage Taiwan from drawing us in by declaring independence but also to deter a Chinese attack by keeping Beijing guessing," Kerry said.

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, passed as a buffer to the U.S. recognition of China and de-recognition of Taiwan, commits the United States to selling Taiwan arms for self-defense and says the United States should retain the ability to defeat any military threat to Taiwan. But it does not explicitly commit the United States to defending Taiwan.

Three China experts testifying Wednesday before the House International Relations East Asian Affairs Subcommittee agreed that if left unqualified, Bush's remarks represented a major break from past U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan.

"If it is interpreted as a defense alliance, I think that's very serious," said Boston University Professor Joseph Fewsmith. Nicholas Lardy, a China expert with the Brookings Institution, said an "ironclad" security guarantee to Taiwan "would run the risk that you precipitate the very events that you are trying to avoid."

Bush has, in the past, interchanged the phrases "Taiwan self-defense" with "defending Taiwan," George Washington University China expert David Shambaugh told the committee.

"But if he does believe that the United States should "do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan,' ... that is a marked departure from six previous administrations," Shambaugh said.

"The president misspoke and the administration was quick to roll it back," Derek Mitchell, a China expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior Pentagon official under President Clinton, said in an interview. Mitchell said the wording of U.S. policy statements on China and Taiwan is "almost biblical. You have to quote them or repeat them, and any slight change is picked up by either side."

Not all reaction to Bush's comments was negative.

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee and a frequent critic of China, said Bush's "straightforward, courageous and unambiguous statement will guarantee that hostility in the Taiwan Strait will not take place."

Chicago Tribune staff reporter Naftali Bendavid contributed to this report.

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