Top Clique Shifts the Basics on China

Jay Taylor was deputy assistant secretary of State for intelligence coordination in the Reagan administration

Republican “traditionalists” on China like Secretary of State Colin Powell, former President Bush, Henry Kissinger and various CEOs of Fortune 500 firms favor a cautious modus vivendi on Taiwan and an emphasis on constructive engagement with Beijing. The traditionalists prevailed in the Bush administration’s handling of the spy plane incident on Hainan island and on the latest arms sales package to Taiwan.

In addition, President Bush’s statements in a recent interview with the Washington Post suggested that he had accepted the traditionalist argument that rhetoric on Taiwan should be balanced and nonconfrontational.

On the other hand, the president on April 25 on “Good Morning America” unambiguously pledged the United States to defend Taiwan against China. Despite immediate backtracking, the statement reflected the views of the “soft hegemonists,” a neoconservative group at the senior deputy level in the administration. This group, which very likely has the support of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is busy trying to alter the basic strategic assumptions of the last 30 years regarding China.

The soft hegemonists are not unhappy with the recent traditionalist decisions on China and Taiwan or with the triumph in general of soft rhetoric. This cohort is quite distinct from the strident critics of China in Congress and on the nation’s editorial pages. They are “soft” in regard to China in that they favor trade and other engagement as a way to promote change and democratization in that country.


The intellectual leader of this group is Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy to Rumsfeld. None of the members are China specialists, speak Chinese or have lived and worked in China. In addition to Wolfowitz, they include Marc Thiessen, Rumsfeld’s new speech writer and a former spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms; Lewis Libby, Cheney’s security guru and a former aide to Wolfowitz; Steven Yates, another Cheney aide; and John R. Bolton, the nominee for assistant secretary of State for international security and arms control. An associate member apparently with divided loyalties is Richard Armitage, the deputy to and best friend of Colin Powell.

In the 1980s, Wolfowitz and these other neoconservative strategic thinkers held important second-tier positions in the Reagan administration or on the Hill. The Soviet threat, which had been the original impetus for U.S.-China detente, seemed still alive. The young hawks, however, at that time believed that the traditionalists greatly exaggerated the strategic importance of Beijing.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Wolfowitz, in a secret Pentagon paper written for then-Defense Secretary Cheney, declared that a strategic goal of the United States should be “to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.” Clearly he again was thinking of China, but in a new world dynamic.

The Wolfowitzian cohort is back on the scene, now in the most senior deputy positions and very much believers in the strategic importance of China. In their opinion, given the continued decline of Russia, the priority U.S. global military objective must be to retain a clear qualitative superiority over China.

Judging by background briefings and the reports of sympathetic journalists like the New York Times’ William Safire, the Pentagon’s forthcoming geopolitical blueprint will bear the stamp of the soft hegemonists. The master plan will reportedly call for future weapons procurement (e.g., more long-range B-2 bombers) and a global shift to the Pacific in U.S. military deployments to deal with the potential China threat. In other words, the U.S. must not simply prepare, as it did in the past, for a possible conflict with China over Taiwan. The goal is the close-up containment of China from the Yellow Sea through the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait to the far edges of the South China Sea.

The soft hegemonist posture leads to the conclusion by the Chinese and others that the new U.S. administration wants to retain and enhance Taiwan’s qualitative military superiority in the Strait as part of its containment strategy. This presumption suggests that Washington does not desire to see a settlement of the Taiwan-mainland dispute, even if the conditions preclude China’s use of the island as a platform for power projection. Various writings and statements of Wolfowitz, Libby and Armitage before they took their present jobs imply support for the indefinite separation of the island from China. While saying he would ask Taiwan not to make a unilateral declaration of independence, Wolfowitz also urged Washington to take an ambiguous stand about Taiwan independence; that is, rescind President Clinton’s pledges of nonsupport and nonrecognition of independence.

Close-up containment as desired by the soft hegemonists would require the permanent neutralization of China’s token deterrent against a U.S. nuclear threat. Rumsfeld, of course, chaired and Wolfowitz was a member of the national commission that strongly recommended moving ahead with a national missile defense system. President Bush subsequently called for deployment of several hundred anti-missile missiles--enough to take care of all the rogues of the world plus China.