Bush vows to defend Taiwan

President's promise is the most explicit in over 2 decades

U.S. denies any policy change

Bush later offers conciliatory words

China says little

April 26, 2001|By Jay Hancock and David L. Greene | Jay Hancock and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if the island were attacked by China, President Bush said yesterday, making what foreign policy analysts said was the most explicit U.S. promise of armed assistance for Taipei in more than two decades.

Later, the president seemed to soften his pledge, denying that there was any change in U.S. policy and describing American military intervention as an option and not a guaranteed result of an attack on Taiwan.

Even so, the comments added up to a hardening in U.S. rhetoric toward Beijing, if not a new policy, raising the oft-feared but seldom-discussed prospect of a U.S.-China war at a time when relations between the countries already are at a low point.

Asked on ABC's "Good Morning America" whether the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan if China attacked, Bush said: "Yes, we do. And the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would."

With the full force of the U.S. military? Bush was asked.

"Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," the president replied.

For years, U.S. military policy in the Taiwan Strait has been hidden under a cloud of "constructive ambiguity" designed to freeze both Beijing and Taipei into inaction.

Bush's comments to ABC went further in articulating that policy than those of any president since Jimmy Carter in 1979, when Washington stopped recognizing the nationalist government in exile on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China, pulled out of a security treaty with Taiwan and normalized relations with Beijing.

The Bush pledge of armed intervention against China "is a significant statement by the president, because we, in fact, have no written commitment to the government of Taiwan. It is a big step," said Philip Zelikow, a national security aide to Bush's father and international affairs analyst at the University of Virginia.

"The understanding has been one of calculated ambiguity," Zelikow said. "The president's statement was not ambiguous."

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said Bush had not departed from a long-standing U.S. obligation to ensure that "Taiwan's peaceful way of life is not upset by force."

"What he said clearly is how seriously and resolutely he takes this obligation."

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Bush's remarks until the Beijing government has had a chance to evaluate his numerous statements yesterday on the relationship.

"We are still studying the remarks made by the president," the spokesman said. "The president has made many remarks. Maybe we should wait until this round of presidential remarks is completed."

Bush gave many interviews Tuesday and yesterday to mark the first 100 days of his presidency, discussing U.S. policy toward Taiwan in several of them.

When the Associated Press asked the president about possible military intervention to defend Taiwan, he delivered a reply that was softer than the one he had given ABC.

"It's certainly an option," Bush said. "And the Chinese have got to understand that is clearly an option."

In other interviews, Bush emphasized that U.S. support for Taiwan's security should not be seen as an endorsement of independence for the island, which China views as a renegade province.

"Our nation will help Taiwan defend itself," Bush told CNN. "At the same time, we will support the `One China' policy, and we expect the dispute [between China and Taiwan] to be resolved peacefully.

"Nothing is really changed in policy as far as I'm concerned."

Advocates of the United States taking a hard line on policy toward China agreed with that idea yesterday, saying that Washington has always implicitly backed Taiwan with American military might.

"It's not a policy change," said Harvey Feldman, a former China hand at the State Department who helped draft the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that undergirds Washington's stance toward Taipei. "That's been the policy all along. [Bush] has phrased it more bluntly than anyone has phrased it before."

White House officials also denied any change in U.S. policy on China and Taiwan but acknowledged that Bush has taken a new tack in discussing it.

"We're committed to help Taiwan defend itself. We have been since 1979," said a White House aide. "It's there in the Taiwan Relations Act."

The act does not require the United States to defend Taiwan from China but says Washington will "maintain the capacity ... to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan."

Those advocating a firm stance toward China praised Bush's comments, saying that they would serve as a deterrent to Chinese aggression toward the evolving democracy of Taiwan.

"I think the president's straightforward, courageous and unambiguous statement will guarantee that hostility in the Taiwan Strait will not take place," said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.

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