President’s Rebuke of Taiwan Stirs Alarm

Times Staff Writer

To conservatives, it was a shocking scene. President Bush sat chatting chummily in the Oval Office on Tuesday with the premier of communist China and harshly rebuked the democratically elected leader of the United States’ old friend and ally, Taiwan.

“The only word I can use is ‘appalled,’ ” said John Tkacik, a China specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a staunch administration supporter. “The spectacle of the American president who just gave such an eloquent speech in Whitehall barely three weeks ago, saying the global expansion of democracy is a pillar of American foreign policy....”

His voice trailed off in disbelief. “This just simply belies that.”

Behind the jarring imagery, however, was a simple message. The Bush administration believes that it cannot afford a political crisis that could draw the United States into a war over Taiwan while it has its hands more than full with Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.

So the president expressed his opposition to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s pledge to hold a March 20 referendum that China finds provocative.


“We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo,” Bush said. “And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

Translation: “The president’s top goal is preserving the peace in the Taiwan Strait,” a senior administration official said. “We are in no way abandoning support for Taiwan’s democracy or for the spread of freedom.”

But to some Republicans, it appeared that a president from their party had done the unthinkable -- siding with a communist leader against democratic Taiwan on a key issue: the island’s right to hold a referendum.

Since Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949, the U.S. has backed Taiwan politically and militarily against the Chinese mainland. In 1972, President Nixon changed that. But while the U.S. recognizes that Taiwan is part of “one China,” Washington has always pledged to protect Taipei against mainland aggression.

As Taiwan transformed itself from a harsh authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy, many U.S. conservatives have resisted any move to marginalize the island in favor of the ever-more-powerful People’s Republic.

Three key neoconservative intellectuals issued a blistering statement Tuesday calling the president’s words “a mistake” and accusing the U.S. government of opting “to at least partly appease Beijing.” China has threatened Taiwan with war if the island declared independence.

“Appeasement of a dictatorship simply invites further attempts at intimidation,” wrote William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan, an influential foreign policy analyst, and Gary Schmitt, of the Project for the New American Century. “Standing with democratic Taiwan would secure stability in East Asia. Seeming to reward Beijing’s bullying will not.”

Some suspected that the Bush administration might have struck a deal with China, agreeing to pressure Taiwan in exchange for Chinese currency concessions or Beijing’s help in persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. A Bush official said any linkage with North Korea would be a “false equation.”

Others saw no evidence of any quid pro quo but plenty of indications that the administration is desperate to avert a crisis while U.S. military and diplomatic resources are painfully stretched by its other foreign entanglements.

“Much as only Nixon could go to China, so too only a conservative Republican president could make this statement about Taiwan,” said Bates Gill, a China specialist at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Being a Republican with strong conservative credentials, [Bush is] able to make these sorts of statements and probably get away with it.”

Bush’s carefully worded statements Tuesday did not alter U.S. policy, which is to not support Taiwanese independence and to insist that the China-Taiwan conflict be resolved peacefully, senior administration officials said. They also stressed that although Bush did not warn the Chinese leader in public not to menace Taiwan, that message was delivered sternly in private.

“Let me tell you the president was very, very forceful on this issue,” one of the officials said. “He made it clear [to visiting Premier Wen Jiabao that] if you force us to, if you try to use force or coercion against the Taiwanese, we’re going to be there.”

Bush had previously outraged the Chinese by saying the U.S. would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan if the mainland attacked.

The administration’s decision to deliver a harsher message to Taiwan appeared to be based on comments by Chen over the weekend that he intended to hold a referendum despite U.S. opposition -- though not one specifically dealing with independence. The Taiwanese leader’s latest, toned-down proposal is a referendum that would call on China to withdraw ballistic missiles aimed at the island and renounce the use of force against Taiwan.

“The United States doesn’t want our referendum to affect the stability in the Taiwan Strait. We fully understand this,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Eugene Chien said Tuesday.

He insisted that the referendum “will not involve the unification or independence issue, nor will it be aimed at changing the status quo.” But there was no indication that Chen would cancel the referendum.

One of Chen’s rivals was quick to seize on the disagreement between Washington and Taipei, portraying his party as a pro-American voice of reason.

“We are not radicals,” opposition leader James Soong, a vice presidential candidate for the 2004 elections, told the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, the capital, according to Reuters. “We are not advocates for rapid change of status quo. We are pragmatic people.”

The domestic reaction to Bush’s remarks might prompt Chen to decide whether standing up against Washington and Beijing will help his reelection bid, Gill said.

“He’s a very, very insightful and clever politician.... If he senses that his actions, and the loss of confidence that’s apparently being shown on the part of our president toward him, is damaging his standing ... he will back off.”