Why Bush Taiwan Comments Set Off a Diplomatic Scramble

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Bush meets with reporters from the Associated Press at the White House

Diplomacy was always going to be something of a challenge for President George W. Bush, because it's often all about the nuanced use of language — not the President's strong suit, by his own admission. And that much was evident Wednesday as China policy watchers both in Washington and Beijing tried to parse the implications of Bush's latest comments about defending Taiwan, as the President himself did a little damage control. The hubbub began after Bush told ABC News Wednesday that Beijing needs to understand that the U.S. would "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. That was a dramatic break with Washington's traditional ambiguity on the question, designed in part to avoid emboldening Taiwanese leaders to declare independence. In a subsequent CNN interview, Bush appeared to backtrack, and emphasized Washington's continued opposition to Taiwan's independence and its belief in a "One China" policy. TIME State Department correspondent Jay Branegan explains the concerns of China watchers:

TIME.com: Why have President Bush's comments about defending Taiwan caused such alarm among Washington's China policy watchers?

Jay Branegan: Because the President's statement on ABC News was a dramatic break with previous policy. For decades, we have maintained a "strategic ambiguity" about whether the U.S. would directly intervene to defend Taiwan. Up to now we haven't even had a defense treaty with Taiwan, and our military has not worked with the Taiwanese military to prepare for such a scenario. So for the President to take a position that appears to suggest we would use our own forces to defend Taiwan against Chinese attack is a dramatic shift, and could be read that way both in Beijing and Taipei.

But isn't this just a case of a President not known for his precise choice of words inadvertently sending out a message?

Well, that's the big question. Did the President simply speak too casually about something that required a lot more cautious and nuanced phraseology, or is this a deliberate change in policy? He appeared to be backpedaling a little in the CNN interview, suggesting that his commitment to Taiwan's defense wouldn't apply if the island declared independence — which, of course, is something that would almost certainly trigger a mainland attack on Taiwan, although it's not the only thing that could do so.

And the reason it's hard to know how far he really intended to change things is because a number of his advisers, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, had been outspoken in recent years in suggesting that the previous strategic ambiguity had lost its usefulness because of changed attitudes on the mainland and in Taiwan, and that the U.S. therefore needed to make a more clear statement that it would come to Taiwan's aid in the event of an attack.

Of course, the President claimed in his CNN interview that nothing has really changed, and that his position was consistent with those of previous administrations. But the ABC interview had certainly set off alarm bells among China watchers. The question is whether this is a president using the media to announce a significant shift in foreign policy, or an inexperienced president trying to effect a nuanced shift and overstating the case. What makes it more interesting is that there is a responsible conservative view in the administration that has been pushing for this. Bush's comments on CNN suggest that he may have overstated the case in the earlier interview, but the real question is by how much.