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Ambiguous strategic ambiguity

By Bill Hengst
web posted April 30, 2001

Just when you thought the valve was released on the pressure cooker that is Chinese-US relations, George W. Bush turns up the heat. As tensions flared anew after President Bush declared that the United States would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself" and said the deployment of American troops is "certainly an option" if China were to invade the island. The president's comments came during a series of interviews broadcast and published in connection with the nearing observation of his first 100 days in office.

Prueher in Beijing earlier this month
Prueher in Beijing earlier this month

The timing of these remarks coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally came just hours after Chinese authorities in Beijing summoned U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to protest Bush's announcement of an offer to sell an array of arms to Taiwan which includes four destroyers, eight diesel submarines and a dozen aircraft to help the island defend itself. After summoning Prueher, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing called on Washington to "immediately revoke it's erroneous decision" and said China would hold the U.S. responsible "for all the consequences" of the weapons sales. Presumably meaning any blood shed due to the sale of said weapons would be on our hands and not their own. Beyond that rhetoric China also threatened to reconsider its cooperation on nonproliferation issues.

These remarks by President Bush would seem to signal a welcome departure from the "strategic ambiguity" that for decades has characterized the official U.S. position on Taiwan. The first of which is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which requires the U.S. to provide the island with the arms necessary for its defense. Congress enacted the measure after the U.S. established diplomatic ties with China and ended its defense treaty with Taiwan. In saying that the U.S. would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," Bush appeared to restate this 22-year-old law, while sending a message to Beijing that there is an iron-clad promise of U.S. military assistance should they decide on military action against the island.

The other U.S. policy, even older, is the strategic ambiguity. For nearly half a century, it has enabled the U.S. to avoid specifying the precise circumstances under which it would commit troops to help protect Taiwan in a military conflict with China. The rationale behind this of course being to keep Taiwan from relying on U.S. military power to help win its independence. The left has long feared that if Taiwan believes with absolute certainty that it can count on U.S. military intervention, the island's government might provoke an armed conflict.

The degree to which the Bush administration is committed to strategic ambiguity is markedly lower than that of the previous administration, in part because several top officials on Bush's foreign policy team two years ago -- during his presidential campaign -- signed a public statement calling for its abandonment. Among them were Richard L. Armitage, now deputy secretary of State; Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of Defense; and Lewis Libby, now Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Republicans were chomping at the bit during the Clinton presidency due to his stance on Taiwan, especially after he went further than any other predecessor in accepting Beijing's view of Taiwan's status during a 1988 trip to China.

Once again President Bush is showing the stamina, will and determination to meet the enemy on his own ground and put him to the task, to test his mettle, and most importantly to return the United States to the position of power and prestige which waned during the Clinton years. Perhaps the reason for a departure from "strategic ambiguity" is best summed up by Vice Foreign Minister LI himself. In response to Bush's remarks Li was quoted as saying "The U.S. act can only further the arrogance of Pro-Taiwan independence forces to split China, intensify the tension across the Taiwan Strait, and harm peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region." I couldn't agree with you more Mr. Foreign Vice Minister...I couldn't agree with you more!

Bill Hengst is the driving force behind "Tiki Trash". Subscribe to his free newsletter at tikitrash-subscribe@listbot.com.

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