Bush faces China calmly

Taiwan: Interviews and arms offers properly keep continuity with previous administrations.

April 27, 2001

PRESIDENT Bush's unfolding China policy is tough in maintaining continuity with past U.S. actions. He's retaining successful approaches that guard against changing circumstances, be it a more belligerent China or a feistier Taiwan.

These policies are the right ones for this nation at this time. But they could have been enunciated more clearly and consistently.

The large arms sales to Taiwan authorized by the president respond to China's alarming build-up of forces poised to attack the island. The offer is consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 and past sales.

Weapons being offered are designed to halt or deter a blockade or invasion. They would not stop a missile attack, though the growing array of missiles pointed at the island create the most alarm.

Mr. Bush excluded a sea-based command system aimed at stopping a missile attack. It would not have been ready for eight years and might not work. China fears it would be part of the proposed U.S. national missile defense, which officially is not about China.

To explain his policies, the president eschewed a carefully drafted address. He chose to do it, perhaps to prove he can, in spontaneous answers to interview questions.

When that is the chosen technique, it is best done once. But to signal his 100th day in office this weekend, Mr. Bush gave consecutive interviews to several networks and news agencies. Differences in his vocabulary were interpreted differently.

And so he told two television networks the United States will do "whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself." What that means depends on whether the listener heard "whatever it takes" or "Taiwan defend itself."

Some critics heard it as a harder line than previous administrations. But to the Associated Press, the president said that using U.S. force "is clearly an option." This restates past ambiguities that served U.S. policy well.

It also keeps Beijing guessing. It discourages Taiwan from declaring independence, which President Bush said he opposes. By resisting commitment to a rigid formula, the president denies to governments in Beijing and Taipei the power to make fateful decisions for the United States.

China reacted negatively but moderately. It threatens to resume arms sales the United States disapproves of to show its disapproval of U.S. sales to Taiwan.

The stage is set for serious negotiations on the Sino-American relationship that could include arms reduction. The way to scale back U.S. arms sales to Taiwan would be through reduced Chinese deployment and rhetoric threatening Taiwan. That is what, in due course, Beijing and Washington should discuss.

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