Bush Has a Tiger by the Tail With His China Policy

Michael D. Swaine, Senior Associate and Co-Director of the China Program

Reprinted with permission from The Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2002

While the nation's attention is focused on terrorism, the Middle East and South Asia, an equally significant danger has been growing in East Asia. The Bush administration is intensifying U.S. political and military ties with Taiwan in ways that could increase the chances of a confrontation with mainland China.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian visited the U.S. twice last year for extended "transit stops" and held unofficial meetings with American politicians. Senior Taiwanese Cabinet officials have traveled to U.S. cities as well. Equally notable, Taiwan gets unprecedented amounts of U.S. military aid, including an increasing number of sophisticated weapons and other support, such as intelligence and reconnaissance data links.

Although some of this began during the Clinton era, it has expanded greatly since President Bush took office. Administration officials insist that more U.S. support is necessary to deter a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan, something Washington is pledged to prevent. They also argue that a more confident Taipei enjoying stronger U.S. support and supposedly under greater U.S. control will be less inclined--and less able--to move toward independence or to end-run the administration with appeals to Congress, as occurred during the Clinton presidency. Reducing the chances of a dangerous miscalculation by China while preventing destabilizing actions by Taiwan should be at the core of any U.S. policy. But the one-sided Bush approach instead signals to Taipei and Beijing that the U.S. will probably tolerate and might encourage any movement toward independence short of the most obvious, such as a formal declaration. It also signals that the U.S. will defend Taiwan if China responds to such movement with a show of force.

This approach is dangerous for several reasons:

* The administration does not know where all of Beijing's internal lines in the sand lie; indeed, the Chinese themselves may not know this. China's leaders fear that incremental movement by the U.S. and Taiwan toward closer ties and what they see as a more permanent independent status for Taipei will build an unstoppable momentum. Beijing could feel compelled to act militarily before such momentum develops. And that could happen no matter how strong Taiwan is militarily.

* One cannot assume that Chen will resist crossing Beijing's less-obvious internal lines, whether for domestic political reasons or out of a search for independence. In fact, he seems to be pressing for a formal invitation to Washington, presumably to guarantee his reelection in 2004.

* Chen is supporting a variety of efforts to discredit the "one-China" concept domestically. The Bush administration does not discourage any of these actions, which are viewed as highly provocative by Beijing. The tolerant Bush approach toward Taipei indirectly encourages pro-Taiwan members of Congress to undermine the one-China concept and to move even closer to Taiwan, thereby creating even greater separation from the mainland. There is growing support on Capitol Hill for a Chen visit as well as for joint military operations between the U.S. and Taiwan, another likely provocation for Beijing.

The Chinese thus far have avoided reacting more aggressively to the Bush policy line because of domestic distractions, a desire to avoid damaging the improving U.S.-China relationship and a sense of growing influence over Taiwan resulting from Taiwan's increasing economic dependence. But these restraints could decline. And even if they do not, they are not a guarantee that Beijing will not take action.

Absent more credible efforts to reassure China by restraining Taiwan and correcting its pro-Taipei policy, the Bush administration may ensure rather than deter a future conflict with China.