Sino-U.S. tensions over Taiwan flared anew Wednesday as President Bush declared that the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself” and said the deployment of American troops is “certainly an option” if China were to invade the island.
But he quickly sought to correct any impression that the remarks constitute a departure from long-standing American policy, which is deliberately vague on how the U.S. would help Taiwan. The policy is designed to prevent Taiwan, which China considers its rightful territory, from relying on U.S. military might.
Beijing reacted forcefully today to the president’s remarks.
“Taiwan is a part of China, not a protectorate of any foreign nation,” said Zhang Qiyue, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry.
Zhang called Bush’s comments “dangerous” and said they “undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and will create further damage to Sino-U.S. relations.”
Bush’s original remarks, made during several interviews, came just hours after Chinese authorities in Beijing summoned U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to protest Bush’s announcement Tuesday of an offer to sell an array of arms to Taiwan to help the island defend itself.
After summoning Prueher, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing called on Washington to “immediately revoke its erroneous decision” and said China would hold the U.S. responsible “for all the consequences” of the weapons sales. China also threatened to reconsider its cooperation on nonproliferation issues.
Given China’s recent detention of 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane, the latest exchange of tough rhetoric--especially Bush’s words and his timing--caused an immediate stir in Washington.
But in a rapid series of follow-up interviews with various news organizations before he embarked on a four-day trip to Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, Bush insisted that his comments did not signal a departure from the “strategic ambiguity” that for decades has characterized the official U.S. position on Taiwan vis-a-vis Beijing.
“Nothing has really changed in policy, as far as I’m concerned,” Bush said.
The State Department also used strong language to deny a U.S. policy shift or even a change in nuance.
“Our policy hasn’t changed today,” department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said. The president “reiterated what we’ve always said.”
Still, the timing of Bush’s remarks--and the emphasis on using U.S. military muscle--caused confusion on Capitol Hill.
“I think the president’s straightforward, courageous and unambiguous statement will guarantee that hostility in the Taiwan Strait will not take place,” Associated Press quoted Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) as saying. But in a Senate floor speech, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Bush’s comments “suggest that the administration has decided to abandon this so-called strategic ambiguity. If so, he has made a major policy change with absolutely no consultation with members of Congress or with our allies in the region.”
In his remarks, Bush was grappling with two long-standing elements in U.S. policy on Taiwan.
The first is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which requires the U.S. to provide the island with the arms necessary for its defense. Congress enacted the measure after the U.S. established diplomatic ties with China and ended its defense treaty with Taiwan.
In saying that the U.S. would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself,” Bush appeared to restate this 22-year-old law but made it unclear if he was going beyond it with an ironclad promise of U.S. military assistance.
The other U.S. policy, even older, is the strategic ambiguity. For nearly half a century, it has enabled the U.S. to avoid specifying the precise circumstances under which it would commit troops to help protect Taiwan in a military conflict with China.
One rationale behind strategic ambiguity is to keep Taiwan from relying on U.S. military power to help win its independence. Thus, Bush said on CNN later in the day, elaborating on his earlier statements:
“First, I have said that I will do what it takes to help Taiwan defend herself, and the Chinese must understand that. Secondly, I certainly hope Taiwan adheres to the one-China policy. And a declaration of independence is not the one-China policy, and we will work with Taiwan to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
The American fear is that if Taiwan believes with absolute certainty that it can count on U.S. military intervention, the island’s government might provoke an armed conflict.
The degree to which the Bush administration is committed to strategic ambiguity takes on special significance in part because several top officials on Bush’s foreign policy team two years ago--during his presidential campaign--signed a public statement calling for its abandonment. Among them were Richard L. Armitage, now deputy secretary of State; Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of Defense; and Lewis Libby, now Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
At the time, some Republicans were harshly critical of then-President Clinton’s Taiwan policy--especially after he went further than any predecessor in accepting Beijing’s view of Taiwan’s status during a 1998 trip to China.
Ironically, China itself has in recent years come to pay less attention to the U.S. policy of ambiguity than do Americans.
Chinese defense and security specialists often tell U.S. visitors that they believe that Washington would certainly intervene on the island’s behalf, no matter what the circumstances, if a war broke out between China and Taiwan.
The president’s comments came during a series of interviews broadcast and published Wednesday in connection with the approaching observation Sunday of his first 100 days in office.
On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Bush was asked whether the U.S. has “an obligation to defend” Taiwan if the island were attacked by China. He replied:
“Yes, we do. And the Chinese must understand that.”
Then interviewer Charles Gibson asked, “With the full force of American military?”
Bush answered, “Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.”
In a subsequent interview with Associated Press, Bush added that military force is “certainly an option” if China invades the island.
In his final interview before leaving the White House early in the afternoon, Bush provided additional context and qualifiers that seemed to soften earlier remarks.
In that interview, broadcast live on CNN, Bush took pains to caution Taiwan not to provoke an attack by declaring independence.
Relations between Washington and Beijing seriously deteriorated after hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy advocates were massacred in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, and the countries’ ties have yet to fully recover.
In 1996, after China fired missiles near Taiwan, Clinton sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the vicinity of the island to show support.
Earlier this month, tensions soared anew during the 11-day diplomatic standoff after the collision of the American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet and the detention of the U.S. crew members.
In Beijing on Wednesday, Vice Foreign Minister Li’s remarks criticizing the proposed arms sales to Taiwan were carried on China’s national evening newscast--the strongest and most public Chinese response so far to Bush’s announcement on the weapons sales.
“The U.S. act can only further the arrogance of pro-Taiwan independence forces to split China, intensify the tension across the Taiwan Strait, and harm peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” Li said.
Taiwan’s leaders welcomed the U.S. arms offer--which includes four destroyers, eight diesel submarines and a dozen aircraft--describing the deal as a renewed commitment to the island.
In Berlin, the German government said Wednesday that it had received no inquiries or contract proposals from the U.S. to build diesel submarines for Taiwan but said it would reject such a partnership.
Germany values the “continuity of its policy” with China and will refuse to export weaponry to Taiwan, government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye told journalists.
Germany and the Netherlands have been mentioned as manufacturers of the submarines, which the U.S. does not make.
Chen reported from Washington and Chu from Beijing. Times staff writers Jim Mann and Robin Wright in Washington and Carol J. Williams in Berlin also contributed to this report.