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Choppy waters

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Bush sends arms there, but sets off an uproar over U.S. policy on Taiwan

George W. Bush is a man of black and white working in a world of grays. He tends to think things are either good or bad--which he might say is good when you're running for President, but he knows now can be bad when you're sitting in the Oval Office. Bush last week ventured into the foreign policy arena, armed with the bluntness that is key to both his image and his personality, and appeared to overturn decades of finely honed policy toward Taiwan and China.

His statements--coming at a time when relations with Beijing are already tense because of the spy-plane episode and the just announced sale, over China's fierce protests, of a sprawling weapons package to Taiwan--caused a furor and renewed doubts about whether he has the touch to handle tricky international issues. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a leading Democrat, rushed to the Senate floor to complain that with his unscripted remarks, Bush "made a major policy change with absolutely no consultation with members of Congress or with our allies in the region." Others suspected that Bush confused plain speaking with sharp thinking: "Words matter, nuance matters," said Delaware's Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The uproar started when the President was asked during an ABC-TV interview whether the U.S. would have an "obligation" to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China, which considers the island a renegade province. "Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would." Interviewer Charles Gibson pressed: "With the full force of the American military?" Bush shot back: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend theirself."

The statement snapped heads not only because the U.S. has no defense treaty with Taiwan but also because for 22 years Republican and Democratic Presidents alike have been deliberately vague about whether America might intervene. This stance--dubbed "strategic ambiguity"--was designed to avoid emboldening Taiwan to declare independence and to keep Beijing guessing, so that both would be careful.

A few hours later, in a CNN interview, Bush sought to backtrack, claiming that what he was committed to was to "help Taiwan defend herself" and that all he was doing was voicing support for America's traditional one-China policy and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act--which says only that an attack on Taiwan would be of "grave concern" to the U.S. As Bush's words ricocheted around town, Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the worried Biden in a phone call that there had been no shift, and a State spokesman insisted, "Our policy hasn't changed today; it didn't change yesterday." Many analysts and commentators, however, assumed that a neophyte President hadn't studied his briefing books and had simply answered the wrong question. The Bushies, after deriding Clinton for letting domestic politics drive foreign policy, displayed a cavalier attitude about the impact of the President's words overseas. Bells were ringing not only in Beijing--where the Foreign Ministry denounced them as "erroneous remarks"--and Taipei, but all around the Pacific, including Japan, whose bases the U.S. would need to help defend Taiwan.

Earlier in the week Bush approved a robust arms package for Taiwan, including destroyers, antisubmarine aircraft and diesel-powered submarines, to counter a possible sea blockade by the mainland. But he turned down the most controversial request, for ships equipped with the advanced Aegis battle-management radar. Although it was the biggest sale in years, Beijing's predictable outrage displayed less bellicosity than it is capable of mustering. Bush, however, indicated that he might okay a future Aegis sale unless Beijing reduces its batteries of short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. Although a few right-wing critics, already angry about Bush's "very sorry" letter for the spy plane, complained that the President caved over the radar, most Republicans and Democrats were satisfied with the decision--a balanced one that had been made after careful deliberation by his top advisers, not off the cuff.

This is not the first time that Bush's impatience with the niceties of diplomacy has ruffled friendly feathers. But even after this latest episode, a senior Administration official insisted, "This President doesn't need a lot of briefing. He knows what he thinks about the issues and is not shy about saying it." Others aren't so sure that's a good thing. Said a Republican Senator: "We either changed our policy [on Taiwan], or the President misspoke. It's one of the two. I think it's the latter." White House officials shrug off the caviling. "His plainspokenness is good diplomacy," said one. "If you want the respect of adversaries, speak plainly." In life, and in Texas, that's probably a good philosophy. But in the more delicate world of international politics, it comes with an important caveat--you'd better know what you're talking about and have a good idea how your adversaries, and your friends, will react.



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Cover Date: May 7, 2001

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