- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

China's latest threat to use force against Taiwan made on March 5 by the vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission demonstrates precisely how weak Beijing believes the Clinton administration to be. China's initial release of the now-famous "White Paper" threatening military force, just days after a high-level American delegation left Beijing, showed clearly that China disdained Clinton administration pleas to use "restraint" in cross-Straits relations.

Confronted with the White Paper, the Clinton administration failed to reject it unequivocally, which has only prompted further this further Chinese threat. The president's passivity was especially surprising given the strongly negative reaction to the White Paper even among those not considered to be supporters of Taiwan. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, for example, said: "The White Paper comments are unacceptable. There is no other way to put it. And I think many of us are surprised by the bluntness and inappropriateness of this particular challenge." How Washington responds to China's latest barrage could set a precedent for years to come.

Many observers initially interpreted the bluntness of China's threat to be directed at Taiwan's voters. Opinion polls there continue to show an extraordinarily competitive election among three well-qualified candidates. Since earlier threats had not diminished the intensity of the debate over Taiwan's future, Beijing apparently attempted to ratchet up the pressure. Of course, analysts familiar with democratic polities (of which there are apparently a dearth in Beijing) could have predicted that a free people might react in precisely the opposite direction than hoped for by a threat's author. Taiwan's answer will come on March 18, but it should have been no surprise, except in Beijing, that all of the leading presidential candidates rejected the White Paper's conclusions.

But there will also be a very real impact of the Chinese threats in Washington. Two important pieces of legislation are potentially affected by Beijing's insensitive rhetoric. First is the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, recently passed in the House of Representatives, which is designed to increase the level of defense cooperation between Taiwan and the United States. This bill, opposed by the Clinton administration, was thought to have, at best, difficult prospects in the Senate. In the immediate aftermath of China's military threats, its chances for passage seem considerably improved.

Second is the expected vote on permanent "normal trade relations" with Beijing, which, if accepted, would replace the annual vote on what used to be called "most favored nation status." An American failure to grant permanent normal trade relations to China on or before its admission to the World Trade Organization is widely seen as violating America's WTO obligations, and could harm the United States more than China. Nonetheless, congressional dissatisfaction with China was already at such a high level prior to the White Paper that the vote on permanent normal trade relations seemed likely to be postponed until after November's U.S. presidential election. Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, contributed to this impression by repeatedly trying to satisfy AFL-CIO opposition to China's WTO membership. Indeed, the union members of an important trade advisory commissioned actually resigned in protest against efforts to build support for China's entry.

Moreover, reports of an impasse in the bilateral WTO negotiations between China and the European Union reached Washington simultaneously with the White Paper. The Europeans appear to be seeking more favorable treatment from the China than the United States received in a number of critical areas. Until there is an European Union-China agreement, there almost certainly will be no congressional vote on permanent normal trade relations. Moreover, if the EU obtains more favorable terms from China than the United States, there will be a powerful backlash in Congress that could further delay the vote, and pressure the Clinton administration to reopen bilateral negotiations with Beijing to obtain new concessions.

Beijing responded typically, warning the United States not to link WTO issues with cross-Straits relations. In Washington, this immediately raised the question whether China was itself linking Taiwan's entry into the WTO, heretofore expected just one month after China's admission, to the reunification question. There were already suspicions that China might renege on its longstanding agreement that Taiwan could join the WTO immediately after China itself joined, and these suspicions have now intensified.

Thus, China's threats have not only enhanced the chances for enacting the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, but they have reduced the prospects for permanent normal trade relations. The Chinese threats both to Taipei and to Washington may prove to be one of China's worst blunders in recent years. Taiwan's rapidly approaching March 18 presidential election will tell us more.

John Bolton is the senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. During the Bush administration, he was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

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