- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

Analysts yesterday questioned whether President Bush had sent a deliberate signal to China or simply misspoken when he told a reporter the United States would use military force to defend Taiwan if the island is attacked by China.
Despite a later insistence that there had been no change in policy, Mr. Bushs remarks went further than those of any U.S. president since 1972, when Washington opened the door to Beijing and introduced a policy of "strategic ambiguity" meant to deter provocation by either Taiwan or China.
Until yesterday, the United States had carefully limited itself to saying it would provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and that it opposed any use of force to change the status of Taiwan.
That changed yesterday morning when Mr. Bush was asked on ABC television: "If Taiwan were attacked by China, do we have an obligation to defend the Taiwanese?"
"Yes, we do," Mr. Bush answered. "And the Chinese must understand that."
ABC newsman Charles Gibson went on to ask: "With the full force of American military?"
Mr. Bush answered: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."
The president left more doubt about what the United States would do in case of an attack on Taiwan in a later interview with the Associated Press.
The use of American force "certainly is an option," he said. "The Chinese have got to understand that it is clearly an option."
Every U.S. president since 1979, when President Carter shifted U.S. recognition from Taiwan to the Beijing government, has left vague the question of what the United States would do in the event of an attack.
Taiwan in reality has been independent of China since 1949, when communists seized power on the mainland and the Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan. However, Beijing has always insisted that Taiwan is a renegade province and has threatened to invade if it declares independence.
Following the 1979 U.S. recognition of Beijing, the United States has maintained unofficial ties with Taiwan. That same year, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which required the United States to help Taiwan defend itself and opposed any use of force to change its status.
The United States also has signed three communiques with China that recognize Chinas policy of only "one China" — an undefined phrase that has meant for two decades that there is one nation with independence deferred and to be achieved by peaceful means.
Mr. Bush also put that understanding in doubt yesterday in his interview with the AP by referring to "two nations."
"Our policy is a one-China policy that the two nations can resolve their disputes peacefully," he said.
It has been widely assumed that the United States would act forcefully if Taiwan is invaded. In 1996, President Clinton sent two U.S. aircraft carriers toward Taiwan when China launched missiles to intimidate pro-independence voters on the island.
However, U.S. officials feared that if they openly declared a commitment to defend Taiwan with arms, Taiwanese leaders might publicly declare independence.
Despite Mr. Bushs remarks yesterday, both the president and the State Department insisted that the policy of the past 20 years was still in place.
"Nothing is really changed in policy as far as Im concerned," Mr. Bush said in an interview with CNN. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker also denied a change in U.S. policy toward China.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, praised the Bush commitment of U.S. force.
"I think the presidents straightforward, courageous and unambiguous statement will guarantee that hostility in the Taiwan Strait will not take place," Mr. Lantos said at a hearing of the International Relations Committee.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, took the opposite tack, saying: "The presidents attempts to be clear about Taiwan will be seen within China as further provocation and support for Taiwans independence."
Analyst Nicolas Lardy of the Brookings Institution said Mr. Bushs statement would have marked a huge change in policy had he allowed it to stand.
Either he did not know the importance of his statement and was seeking to backtrack, or else he and his China advisers wanted to end the "strategic ambiguity" policy, said Mr. Lardy.
"The Bush statement today went far beyond any previous commitment we made to Taiwan," Mr. Lardy said in an interview.
Two of Mr. Bushs top foreign policy advisers Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Arm-itage — signed a letter before taking office this year in which they urged the United States to say explicitly that it would defend Taiwan.
Mr. Lardy said force "has always been an option. … The whole idea of strategic ambiguity has been when and under what conditions we would use force."

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