(Used by permission of Pacific Forum CSIS)
conservatives have become apoplectic at the sight of
President George W Bush standing next to the premier of
communist China last week and slapping down the
democratically elected leader of Taiwan. In the midst of
an escalating controversy over Taiwan's future status,
Bush very clearly sided with China.
Taiwan's plan to hold a referendum on the removal of
Chinese missiles threatening the island - which he
implied would be a de-facto vote on independence,
although Taiwan denies that charge. US critics see
Bush's stance as the "appeasement of a dictatorship" and
a betrayal of America's commitment to democracy. That
view holds that the United States is tilting toward
China because of its preoccupation with Iraq and the
need for China's support in dealing with North Korea's
threat to go nuclear.
I share much of that
sentiment. The United States is blatantly interfering in
Taiwan's democratic process, and it is doing so largely
at the urging of Beijing. While there is no clear
tradeoff, the Bush administration is now overly
dependent on China to pressure North Korea.
his comments last week, the president was trying to
clean up a mess that he, in part, created. The White
House - not wrongly - believes Taiwanese President Chen
Shui-bian has played a reckless game of stirring up
anti-Beijing sentiment in a desperate attempt to shore
up his sagging hopes for re-election in March. But Chen
has been getting confusing signals from the Bush
administration. Now, in trying to rein in Chen, Bush has
committed himself to language that upsets a delicate
policy, which has been in place since the late US
president Richard Nixon made the opening to communist
China in 1972.
Put simply, the US "acknowledged"
that there is "one China", of which Taiwan is a part,
but insisted that any cross-Strait disputes must be
resolved peacefully. The United States established
diplomatic relations with China but kept de-facto ties
to Taiwan, including military links. While the US has
defended Taiwan against Chinese threats to reunify by
force, it has repeatedly said it "does not support" the
independence of Taiwan. However, it also has refused to
adopt tougher language that China favors, saying that it
The one-China policy has
come under increasing stress as Taiwan has become a
vibrant democracy. Pro-independence politicians have
gained power from the Nationalists (Kuomintang, or KMT),
who fled the mainland in 1949 but still claimed to
represent the one China.
Tensions rose during
the 2000 Taiwan elections when Beijing threatened dire
consequences if Chen won. That line backfired and
actually helped Chen win. This time Beijing has kept
quiet, hopeful that the KMT-backed candidate would win.
But Chen has narrowed the race in recent months by
talking tough about Taiwan's status. China responded by
asking the Bush administration to curb the Taiwanese.
The White House obliged, even sending a secret envoy
last week to try to dissuade Chen.
president didn't budge - but he can be forgiven for
being confused. When Bush came to office, he immediately
signaled a readiness to embrace Taiwan, warning that the
US would do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan and
offering to sell advanced weapons to the island.
Taiwanese officials, who used to sneak into the
US for visits, were treated with greater respect. Last
month, Chen got unprecedented treatment during a
"transit" through New York, which included meetings with
Bush administration officials and full access to the
press. Therese Shaheen, the Washington representative of
the American Institute in Taiwan, a semi-official post,
reportedly told Chen that Bush was his "secret guardian
angel". All of that played well back home and created
the impression that Washington was backing his
Then Bush, in an attempt to correct
this situation, went significantly beyond earlier US
policy toward Taiwan. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao
said Bush had reiterated US "opposition to Taiwan
independence" in their meeting, Bush said nothing. That
may be because, according to sources within the
administration, the president had used similar language
in private with Chinese leaders on at least two previous
occasions, most recently in October.
to Chen is now clear. But he has his own re-election to
think about. Washington and Beijing may not like that,
but after all, isn't that what democracy is all about?
Daniel Sneider (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury
News. This article is used by permission of Pacific Forum CSIS.