- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s trip to Washington this week has left many unanswered and disturbing questions about the state of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Chief among these is whether the U.S. position to defend Taiwan against mainland China is in flux. It is important for Washington policy-makers not to blur the distinction between the two states. Taiwan is a practicing democracy while China is a communist dictatorship. Beijing needs to understand that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan and its system is not in doubt.

The main cause for confusion is President Bush’s Tuesday statement opposing Taiwanese autonomy. “The United States government’s policy is one China,” he said. “We oppose any unilateral decisions by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo. The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally, to change the status quo, which we oppose.” Mr. Bush delivered this message while standing next to the communist Chinese premier. In an unusual statement of thanks yesterday, Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said that Mr. Bush’s positions on Taiwan “were positive, and the Chinese side expresses its appreciation.” In short, Beijing now sees Washington as being closer to its side vis a vis Taiwan.

We understand the natural tendency of any president to want to find flattering language to comfort a visiting head of state. Nonetheless, this week’s White House kudos to Beijing seemed to come unjustifiably at the expense of Taiwan. On its Web site, Xinhua, China’s government-run news agency, published more than 20 photos of Mr. Wen with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other American political and business leaders. The Chinese government announced the trip a total success, and a Xinhua article gleefully pointed out that one reason for this was that “the U.S. opposes any referendum” in Taiwan. Keeping “face” is important for Asian leaders, and this week’s Sino-U.S. agreement left Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian with no face.

One of the most significant developments is that Bush administration officials interpreted the current cross-strait showdown entirely from Beijing’s perspective — especially regarding the referendum being pushed by Mr. Chen. Despite what is being suggested by Chinese leaders, U.S. officials and most international news organizations, the referendum has nothing to do with independence and does not bring Taiwan closer to announcing independence. It merely seeks to make a unified Taiwanese request that China disengage the nearly 500 missiles aimed at the island.

Mr. Chen has pledged not to provoke China and has a longstanding promise not to declare independence. The referendum has not moved away from either stance. Beijing objects to it — as it does to any proposal for any referendum in Taiwan on anything — because referenda underscore the democratic voice of the island and its opposition to Beijing’s hostile stance.

Taipei is alarmed by Washington siding with Beijing on the referendum issue because it signals that an attempt by some American bureaucrats to shift U.S. policy away from Taiwanese defense may be gaining ground. Some in the State Department and on the National Security Council want to declare that America will not defend Taiwan if Beijing claims it is provoked into using force. But Taiwanese elections and any referenda, whether or not they are related to independence, are already considered provocative by Beijing.

That Washington’s policy toward Taiwan is in doubt was made obvious by the extreme editorials in the Wednesday editions of the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The Journal praised the White House shift, applauded Mr. Bush’s belief in “one China” as “the end of ambiguity,” and blamed Taipei for “throwing a spanner in the works” and trying to set “a precedent for a possible future vote on independence.” The last claim is grasping for straws, and that it is China that militarily threatens Taiwan is conveniently overlooked.

The Post claimed that “Mr. Bush’s kowtow” to Beijing “demonstrated again how malleable is his commitment to the defense of freedom as a guiding principle of U.S. policy.” We disagree. The president’s commitment to defending freedom is obvious through his efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, his recent statements regarding Taiwan are worrying. It would be wise for the White House to restate America’s commitment to defend Taiwan. With the Taiwan Strait on a hair trigger, ambiguity is dangerous.

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