Why President Bush Needs to Learn Taiwan Doublespeak

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Chinese military police march in front of the U.S. embassy in Beijing

Washington's mistakes are sometimes so basic that its rivals can't believe they're really mistakes, and instead react as if they're part of a master plan. That observation by former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser may hold true for the Bush administration's China policy. Beijing reacted furiously Thursday to President Bush's vow to "do whatever it takes" — including weighing the use of force — to defend Taiwan in the event of a confrontation, warning that Washington was "heading down a dangerous road." And President Bush's own backpedaling on those comments by repeatedly emphasizing the continuity between his own and his predecessors' approach to the Taiwan question suggests the White House is well aware of the dangers raised by the President's choice of words.

Bush's comments came in the course of a series of media interviews marking his first 100 days in office, and appear to have been designed to strike a tough posture behind his decision to sell Taiwan a robust package of weapons but hold off on supplying it the Aegis anti-missile warfare system. Washington observers believe he wasn't trying to signal a new policy — even if his words did just that — and some suggest he may have confused arming the island to defend itself against the mainland with the idea of going to war to defend Taiwan.

U.S. policy on China for the past three decades has been based on the "One China" policy, riddled as it is with what policymakers call "strategic ambiguity." The U.S. recognizes that China and Taiwan are ultimately part of the same sovereign entity, but opposes any move to reunify them by force. While it undertakes to supply Taiwan with enough weaponry to ward off invasion by the mainland, it also strenuously avoids sending signals that might encourage the island to declare formal independence — an eventuality that would almost certainly provoke a war across the Taiwan Strait. The long-term view associated with "strategic ambiguity" is that economic and political developments currently under way will break down the barriers between them, making peaceful reunification a real possibility. Indeed, with their own economy slowing, Taiwan's entrepreneurs are increasingly channeling their investments onto the mainland, giving the Taiwanese business community a major stake in reconciling Beijing and Taipei.

But until capitalism works its wonders on the mainland, the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship is a game of three-dimensional chess in which the most complex dimension may well be the words chosen by Washington to cloak its policy ambiguities — and complexities of language have never been President Bush's strong suit.

When pressed on Taiwan, U.S. presidents have traditionally sought refuge in the Taiwan Relations Act, which is so riddled with ambiguities of its own as to make it acceptable across the political spectrum in Washington. Of course President Bush is correct, in one sense, that his stance is consistent with his predecessors' — it has always been conceivable that Washington would weigh the direct use of force if Taiwan were attacked, and as recently as 1996 the Clinton administration moved two carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait when Beijing appeared to be threatening a missile strike on the island. But it's never said as much, nor does it have any formal defense pact with Taiwan, precisely to avoid emboldening the Taiwanese to declare independence, which would almost certainly drive Beijing to war.

Of course, some of the conservative elements in the administration argue that the U.S. should abandon "strategic ambiguity" in favor of a more direct commitment to Taiwan, but this is not administration policy. And conservatives are falling in line behind White House efforts to tamp down any impression that Bush was announcing a new line. Still, the brouhaha is unfortunate for Bush, because in order to control the damage in Beijing, Washington's spin doctors are forced, essentially, to persuade the Chinese not to take too literally the words that come out of the President's mouth.

With reporting by Jay Branegan/Washington