President Bush made a startling change inWashington’s Taiwan policy during a visit byPremier Wen Jiabao of the People’s Republicof China in December 2003. With Wen at hisside, Bush stated that the United Statesopposed “any unilateral decision by eitherChina or Taiwan to change the status quo.”Making it clear that his warning was directedprimarily to Taipei rather than Beijing, headded that “the comments and actions madeby the leader of Taiwan indicate that he maybe willing to make decisions unilaterally, tochange the status quo, which we oppose.”
If that were not enough, the president stoodmute when Wen characterized U.S. policy asone of “opposition to Taiwan independence”and expressed China’s appreciation for thatstance.
Whether Bush intended it or not, thatcharacterization suggested that Washington’spolicy was now closer to Beijing’s position thanit was even during the last years of the Clintonadministration. The furthest Clinton had beenwilling to go was to state that the United States“does not support” Taiwanese independence.
The difference between “does not support” and“oppose” may be subtle, but it is quite impor-tant. Beijing had unsuccessfully pressed a suc-cession of U.S. administrations for an expres-sion of explicit opposition to an independentTaiwan; now, China seems to have achievedthat goal.Bush’s undercutting of Taiwan drew immedi-ate and sharp rebukes from his political allies.Neoconservatives William Kristol, Robert Kagan,and Gary Schmitt immediately issued a state-ment criticizing the president for rewarding“Beijing’s bullying” but saying “not a word” aboutChina’s missile buildup across the Taiwan Straitand the PRC’s repeated threats of war againstTaiwan. They added, “Appeasement of a dictator-ship simply invites further attempts at intimida-tion.”
John Tkacik, who studies East Asian secu-rity issues at the Heritage Foundation, was evenmore caustic. Accusing the president of “losinghis bearings” on the Taiwan issue, Tkacik did notattempt to conceal his dismay. “It just boggles themind,” he said. “I’m just appalled. Clinton neverwould have gone this far.”
The president’s political allies were notthe only people who believed that Bush wentmuch too far in placating Beijing. The
weighed in with a scathingeditorial criticizing President Bush for essen-tially placing “the United States on the sideof the dictators who promise war, rather thanthe democrats whose threat is a ballot box.”Such action suggested “how malleable is hiscommitment to the defense of freedom as aguiding principle of U.S. policy.”
Administration officials sought to mollifycritics by reaffirming that the United Stateswas still committed to Taiwan’s security. Butboth Taiwan and its friends in the UnitedStates remain deeply concerned about Wash-ington’s new apparently pro-Beijing tilt.
A Stark Reversal of Policy
What made Bush’s comments especiallysurprising is that they were such a sharpreversal of the course he had adopted duringthe initial months of his presidency. In a tele-vision interview on April 25, 2001, Bushappeared to discard all nuances and caveatsabout protecting Taiwan. When asked byABC News reporter Charles Gibson if theUnited States had an obligation to defendTaiwan, the president replied, “Yes, we do,and the Chinese must understand that.”Would the United States respond “with thefull force of the American military?” Gibsonpressed. “Whatever it took to help Taiwandefend herself,” Bush replied.
That state-ment was far more categorical than the assur-ances offered by previous administrations,both Republican and Democratic. Bush’spredecessors had implicitly embraced a doc-trine of “strategic ambiguity,” implying thatthe United States would defend Taiwanunless the Taiwanese provoked the attack bytoo vigorously asserting the island’s de factopolitical independence.Although Bush’s aides rushed to give assur-ances that there had been no change in
The president’spolitical allieswere not the onlypeople whobelieved thatBush went muchtoo far inplacating Beijing.