- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

NEW ORLEANS — President Bush yesterday insisted he has not changed U.S. policy toward Taiwan, despite his vow to do "whatever it took" to defend the island in the event of a military attack by mainland China.
The presidents tough talk on Taiwan raised eyebrows because it seemed to signal a departure from previous policy, in which the U.S. was intentionally ambiguous about whether it would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
In one of numerous interviews about his first 100 days in office, Mr. Bush was asked whether the United States has an obligation to defend the island, which Beijing views as a renegade province.
"Yes, we do," the president told ABC News. "And the Chinese must understand that. Yes, we would."
Asked if that meant using the "full force of American military," Mr. Bush replied: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."
Mr. Bush yesterday repeated his words and said they did not reflect a change of U.S. policy.
"Nothing has really changed in policy as far as I am concerned," Mr. Bush told CNN in an interview yesterday. "This is what other presidents have said and I will continue to say so."
One senior administration official, acknowledging Mr. Bushs remarks carry greater weight now that he is president, said it was important for him to restate the tough talk now that China is engaged in a massive military buildup.
In Washington, the State Department scrambled to downplay the remarks.
"Nothing has changed in our policy," insisted State Department spokesman Philip Reeker. "Our policy hasnt changed today. It didnt change yesterday. It didnt change last year.
"It hasnt changed, in terms of what we have followed since 1979 with the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act," he added. "And the president was very clear on our position. And I think he reiterated what weve always said."
But the Taiwan Relations Act, while committing the United States to helping Taiwan defend itself, does not specify the use of military force. By asserting that he is willing to resort to such force, Mr. Bush caused a stir among some Democrats, who accused him of abandoning a policy of "strategic ambiguity."
Samuel R. Berger, the Clinton administrations national security adviser, told the Associated Press that a key reason for being vague always has been "not to embolden Taiwan."
In the space of a few hours, Mr. Bush "went from a 20-year policy of strategic ambiguity to what appeared to be a firm commitment, then back to strategic confusion," he said.
But Mr. Clinton was anything but ambiguous when he sent warships into the Taiwan Straits in 1996, when China was conducting provocative military exercises and issuing bellicose statements toward Taipei.
"The Taiwan Relations Act makes very clear that the United States has an obligation that Taiwans peaceful way of life is not upset by force," said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "What he said clearly is how seriously and resolutely he takes this obligation. A secure Taiwan will be better able to engage in a cross-strait dialogue."
James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China, lauded Mr. Bush for jettisoning U.S. ambiguity.
"He was being frank," Mr. Lilley told The Washington Times. "He was saying whats been happening all along. He laid it out on the table.
"The Chinese have been squawking about using force. Whats wrong with us saying if you use force, youre going to run into us? It was implicit before; now its fairly explicit."
He added: "The Chinese have gotten increasingly belligerent. Theyve got the wherewithal to do it — the submarines, the missiles. And its time to make a clear message: Dont use those things."
Although Mr. Bushs remarks to ABC unsettled observers in both Washington and Beijing, he refused to back down from his position in subsequent interviews.
"What Im saying is that China must know that if circumstances warrant, that we will uphold the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act and that they just have got to understand that," he told the AP.
Asked whether the United States would use force to do so, the president said: "Its certainly an option."
Mr. Bush also used the CNN interview to restate U.S. support for the 'One China policy, which calls for eventual reunification by peaceful means, and to warn Taiwan against declaring independence.
"I certainly hope Taiwan adheres to the 'One China policy and a declaration of independence is certainly not the 'One China policy and we will work with Taiwan to make sure that doesnt happen," he said.
Still, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said Mr. Bush had limited U.S. flexibility by essentially telling Taiwan that "no matter what it does, the United States will be there to defend it." Mr. Kerry is considering a run for the White House against Mr. Bush in 2004.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Kerry called Mr. Bushs comments "a major policy change with absolutely no consultation" with Congress.
Mr. Bushs comments came less than 24 hours after the U.S. offered to sell Taiwan the most extensive package of U.S. weapons in a decade. Despite his criticism of Mr. Bushs comments, Mr. Kerry called the arms package for Taiwan "the right mix and the right measure."
Further complicating U.S.-Sino relations is Beijings refusal to return a U.S. reconnaissance plane that made an emergency landing after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter April 1. The Chinese held the planes 24 American crew members hostage for nearly two weeks and have shown no sign of returning the plane.
He added that "no new date has been set as yet for the postponed meeting" of the military maritime commission that has been tasked with resolving the planes fate.
But Mr. Lilley said reclaiming the plane is unimportant compared with the urgency of reinstituting U.S. surveillance flights off the Chinese coast, which were suspended after the collision.
Mr. Lilley said there is virtue in straight talk when it comes to dealing with a potential threat like China. He recalled the failure of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who was deliberately vague about whether the United States would go to war to protect South Korea half a century ago.
The ambivalence helped convince North Korea to invade the south, with Chinas backing.
"I wish Acheson had been plain-spoken in January 50," he said. "Maybe 50,000 American lives would have been saved."
* Dave Boyer contributed to this article.


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