Why Bush Comments Frighten Beijing

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TIME.com: What impact will President Bush's latest comments on Taiwan have in Beijing?

Jaime Florcruz: The most optimistic scenario is that the Chinese will simply understand these pronouncements as similar to campaign rhetoric rather than a policy shift. I've already heard one Chinese think-tank representative offer that explanation. The flip side of that, though, is to embrace the idea that you can’t take seriously the pronouncements of the U.S. president. And that's a very serious situation. When you have policy makers in Beijing trying to decipher the new Bush administration's China policy, you can't afford to be seen to flip-flop — President Bush says something at 5pm, at then at 8pm another official is talking, toning down and revising what the commander-in-chief just said. That is confusing and scary for policymakers in Beijing.

China's official reaction denouncing the comments was predictable. Bush’s comments put him on a slippery slope, because they diverge from the "strategic ambiguity" tack that has defined the relationship for Washington all these years. Republican and Democrat administrations — including President Bush's father — have since Nixon's opening to Beijing embraced "strategic ambiguity" on Taiwan.

Although some people in Washington make the argument that Taiwan has changed fundamentally since that policy was adopted, and that the geopolitics of the Taiwan Strait have changed so much that the policy should be changed. Others are not convinced that anything has changed to the extent that requires rethinking "strategic ambiguity." And there's always the danger of giving Taiwan a signal that they have carte blanche to do what they will and the U.S. will defend them. Taiwan may take that as a signal to push the edge of the envelope on independence, and provoke Beijing to seek a military solution.

How might the latest war of words affect the internal power struggle in Beijing?

It will only strengthen Beijing's impression that China policy is now driven by the hawks in Washington. Most of the U.S. officials they've had to deal with from the Bush administration so far have been military types — particularly since the Hainan accident. And it worries Beijing that there is no one at the policy-making level in Washington who the Chinese would consider experts on Chinese affairs.

More worrying, perhaps, is that there are a lot of other obstacles down the road that may make it difficult to improve Beijing’s relationship with the Bush administration — the Taiwan arms sale, the congressional debate over maintaining China's normal trading partner status, the decision over where to hold the Olympic Games in 2008. That gives both sides very little time to put the spy plane issue behind them before President Bush is due to visit China in the fall. Chinese leaders are anxious to see the Bush administration move from campaign rhetoric to realpolitik, allowing both sides to break the impasse in the relationship rather than letting it languish. Because Beijing is entering a very complicated transition period, in which its leaders are going to find it hard to take bold decisions or major risk. And, of course, the weaker they feel, the more defensive and hostile they’re likely to be towards Washington.