The Rising East


Bush takes great leap
forward in pledging U.S.
help in defending Taiwan

In a closed-door meeting in Florida last week, the Bush administration took a great leap forward in its declared policy that Taiwan remain separate from China so long as the people of Taiwan wish, even if that requires U.S. military force.

The host of the three-day U.S.-Taiwan Defense Summit was Frank Carlucci, chairman of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, onetime deputy director of central intelligence, national security adviser to President Reagan, later secretary of defense and possibly the most secretive official in Washington in many years.

Why the meeting was so hidden was not clear, other than to avoid flaunting it in the face of China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and protests every American action favoring the island. Even so, enough leaked out to illuminate President Bush's policy, which has been consistent ever since he enunciated it during his campaign for the presidency.

The centerpiece was a visit by Taiwan's defense minister, Tang Yao-ming, the first since President Carter switched U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979. That Tang was invited was more evidence that Bush has adopted the most pro-Taiwan posture of any president in nearly a quarter century; his stance differs distinctly from that of President Clinton, who tilted in favor of Beijing.

The senior U.S. official at the gathering was Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who has written: "It would be a strategic as well as a moral mistake for the United States to ever let China use force to have its way with Taiwan." He has cautioned, however, that the United States expected Taiwan to avoid provoking China.

Tang asserted that Taiwan would do no such thing. After talking with Wolfowitz for two hours, Tang said he had guaranteed that his government would "by no means take any provocative step" toward China.

The meeting, at an exclusive resort in St. Petersburg, brought out representatives of America's biggest defense contractors -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, United Technologies, Textron, Honeywell International, and United Defense. Among them, they make every weapon Taiwan could possibly want to fend off the expanding might of China.

China's military threat to Taiwan is not immediate. Adm. Dennis Blair, who commands U.S. forces in the Pacific, told Congress recently: "The PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) is still years away from the capability to take and hold Taiwan."

The admiral cautioned, however: "Continued improvements in Taiwan's capabilities and development of USPACOM (United States Pacific Command) capabilities will be necessary to maintain sufficient defense."

Bush began enunciating his policy on Taiwan in November 1999, saying that he would honor "our promises to the people of Taiwan" and "we deny the right of Beijing to impose their rule on a free people."

The Republican election platform reflected the candidate's policy: "All issues regarding Taiwan's future must be resolved peacefully and must be agreeable to the people of Taiwan." It said that if China attacked Taiwan, "the United States will respond appropriately in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act."

The TRA, adopted after Carter broke relations with Taiwan, commits the United States to provide defensive arms to Taiwan and to view a threat from China with "grave concern." Bush has repeatedly referred to the TRA in a not-so-subtle message to China that the law is the bedrock of his posture on Taiwan.

The most succinct statement of the Bush policy came from Secretary of State Colin Powell during his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2001: "We expect and demand a peaceful settlement, one acceptable to people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait."

Shortly after Bush took office, he approved the largest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, allowing Taiwan to buy four destroyers, eight diesel-powered submarines, 12 anti-submarine aircraft and a flock of missiles and other weapons.

At the same time, he said the United States would do whatever it takes to help defend Taiwan. He told an interviewer: "China must know that if circumstances warrant, that we will uphold the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act." Whatever decision Bush makes, a defense official said, the Pacific Command is ready "to respond to any potential crisis, including the use of force against Taiwan by China."

The critical question: Will the Chinese, noting American military operations in Afghanistan, heed these warnings or will they miscalculate and try to call Bush's bluff?

Richard Halloran is a former correspondent
for The New York Times in Asia and a former editorial
director of the Star-Bulletin. His column appears Sundays.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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