A "Blue Team" Blocks Beijing

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The Chinese word for crisis, sinologists like to say, combines the characters for danger and opportunity. Despite the risks to U.S.-China relations, a small group of China specialists in Washington views the spy-plane incident as the best chance yet to alert the Establishment to Beijing's growing strategic threat to the U.S. "This basically puts a stake through the heart of appeasement," says Edward Timperlake, a former Marine fighter pilot and an author who worked in the Reagan Administration.

Timperlake is a member of the Blue Team, a loosely organized group of conservative congressional aides, experts and political operatives who reject not only the Clinton concept of a "strategic partnership" with China but also the mainstream Republican policy of trade-based engagement to encourage reforms. They think the communist regime should be contained and confronted, much as the Soviet Union was treated, and that Taiwan's democracy should receive robust military support.

Blue Team members, numbering perhaps 40, keep in touch via e-mail and sometimes gather for drinks at the American Tavern on F Street in Washington. Many prefer to operate behind the scenes, relishing their role as insurgents. "It isn't politically correct to be with us," says William Triplett, a congressional staff member who coined the term Blue Team, after the code name that China gives its enemy in war games, and who wrote with Timperlake a book on China's military, Red Dragon Rising. Blue Teamers helped write and promote the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, a controversial bill that passed the House last year, and have succeeded in attaching riders to legislation that force the Pentagon to provide regular updates on China's military strength. Their handiwork was evident last week in a letter signed by 82 House members urging President Bush to sell advanced destroyers to Taiwan. Says Ronald Montaperto, a former Pentagon expert on Chinese military affairs who has crossed swords with the Blues: "They're very passionate. Unlike them, many of us believe you can be suspicious of China but understand that it's necessary to get along."

Bush's handling of the spy-plane incident gets a grudging pass from most Blues, who would prefer more assertive actions but applaud the contrast to the previous Administration. "By this point Bill Clinton would have apologized three times to the world," says the Blue Team's Richard Fisher, a China expert at the Jamestown Foundation. While the Blues are encouraged by the new rightward tilt in Washington, they know the pro-engagement policymakers still hold sway. Timperlake vows that "history will put us in the mainstream." China makes the same prediction.