Bush's remarks rankle Beijing

China accuses U.S. of deviating from the `One China' policy

A firm but careful response

April 27, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - A day after President Bush pledged that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan if China attacked, Beijing responded with both force and care, criticizing Washington for making "erroneous remarks" and cautioning the United States not to further damage relations at a sensitive time.

At a regularly scheduled Foreign Ministry news conference yesterday, spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue also accused the United States of violating its long-standing commitment to the "One China" principle, which holds that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it.

"As to the comments made by President Bush, we have expressed that the Chinese government and people are strongly indignant and opposed to them," Zhang said. "It shows that the U.S. side has drifted further on a dangerous road. We are seriously concerned."

Amid a flurry of reporters' questions, though, Zhang refused to go further. When asked if Bush's remarks constituted a change in U.S. policy or what concrete steps China might take in retaliation, she declined to answer.

On Wednesday, Bush rocked already shaky Sino-U.S. relations when he said the United States would defend Taiwan if China attacked the island as it has threatened to do in the past.

While such a pledge has always been implied, Bush's statements were the most explicit by a U.S. president in more than 20 years and came two days after news that Washington would sell Taiwan the biggest arms package in nearly a decade.

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

Asked if the United States would use the full force of its military, Bush said: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."

Bush appeared to soften his pledge in other interviews, denying that the U.S. position had changed and expressing support for the "One China" policy, a legal fiction that has helped keep peace across the Taiwan Strait for more than two decades.

Regardless, the president's remarks left the impression that Bush was taking a harder line against Beijing at a time when nerves between the two countries are already frayed after a collision April 1 between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.

Although the United States and China have strong economic ties and mutual interests in a stable Asia, their disagreement over Taiwan is the most volatile aspect of their relationship and could someday lead to war.

China's authoritarian government views Taiwan as a renegade province and its return as the most important foreign policy goal. It sees U.S. support for Taiwan as the major impediment to bringing the island back to the fold.

Although Washington broke diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979 so it could recognize Beijing as China's capital, the United States has far more in common with Taiwan than with China. As Taiwan shed its authoritarian ways, it remade itself in the image of America and emerged as one of Asia's most vibrant and economically successful democracies.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry's measured response to Bush's remarks yesterday was mirrored in the country's state-run news media, which either played down or ignored the president's comments.

When the Chinese government wants to fan public anger toward the United States, it fills its newspapers with all sorts of nationalistic rhetoric and invective. Yesterday, though, most newspapers did not even mention Bush's words.

The 7 o'clock evening news on China Central Television's Channel 1 aired the story 20 minutes into the broadcast and only ran excerpts from the Foreign Ministry news conference.

Online - where Chinese were almost certain to learn about the president's remarks anyway - Internet versions of state newspapers emphasized Bush's conciliatory comments.

An article in the Internet edition of China Daily, the government's English language newspaper, turned the story upside down. Instead of emphasizing Bush's pledge of protection for Taiwan, China Daily focused on the clarifying remarks the president made in other interviews.

"Bush vows no policy change towards Taiwan," the headline read in yesterday's Hong Kong Internet edition of China Daily. Later in the article, a Chinese international relations specialist downplayed the remarks as well.

"You cannot take a politician's political rhetoric too seriously," the story quoted Lin Limin, a researcher with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, as saying. "Bush did the same thing right after the spy plane incident by taking a tough line toward China and using bellicose rhetoric. And what happened later? He ... softened his tone."

It was difficult to know whether China's measured approach represented the regime's last word on Bush's remarks or was merely a prelude to a harsher reaction. Sometimes the Chinese government takes a couple of days before it fully formulates a response.

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