Shaven-headed Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has the imposing physique of a professional wrestler and is not usually pestered by inquisitive foreign reporters. But on May 18, two Chinese-language television crews stood in his way as he emerged from a Senate hearing room after a grilling on the administration’s strategy in Iraq. Rather than barrel through the wall of microphones, betacams, and floodlamps, one of the Chinese reporters told me later, the burly deputy secretary stopped. Not used to such openness from Armitage, the TV journalists bucked up their courage to ask what his views were on the potentially controversial inauguration speech that the re-elected Taiwan president was scheduled to give two days later. Armitage pondered before replying.
”I believe President Chen Shui-bian will make a very erudite and high-level speech,” came the inimitable Armitage growl. “It will be very lofty in its goals,” he continued, before responding to a question about Beijing’s possible reaction: “I am quite positive he will do nothing to inflame cross-strait tensions.”
During his first term in office, Taiwan’s president had been stung by Washington’s complaints that he had repeatedly and needlessly antagonized China with his “independentist” speeches, and what’s worse, had not adequately communicated with Washington beforehand. This time, Chen was sharing the draft text of his inauguration speech with the U.S. government and seeking Washington’s imprimatur. In late April, Chen sent his chief-of-staff and a team of prestigious Taiwan lawyers on an unpublicized visit to Washington where they went over the speech line-by-line with Bush administration officials and briefed them on Chen’s plans to pursue Taiwan’s constitutional reforms.
The move paid off. With full knowledge of the text, Armitage was unabashed in his willingness to comment on the substance and erudition of the Taiwan president’s speech two days before it was to be given. Indeed, State Department China-Taiwan policy officials were a tad surprised that the deputy secretary would comment on a speech that a foreign head of state had not yet delivered.
But they pointed out privately that China’s rhetoric had ratcheted up in the day before and it was important not to leave Beijing with the impression that Washington viewed China’s fulminations with equanimity. The Chinese government issued a statement on May 17 denouncing the Taiwanese president as a man of “bad faith” and threatening to “firmly and thoroughly crush any moves toward independence.” It warned the Taiwanese to “rein in the horse on the brink of the precipice” or face “their own destruction by playing with fire.” To be fair, the Chinese had briefed the U.S. ambassador in Beijing on their statement, so the U.S. was well prepared for the blast.
Hence, Armitage’s praise for the Taiwan president was carefully considered. It was bolstered by a tough statement from White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who averred that “threats to ‘crush’ Taiwan or drown it in a ’sea of fire’ have no place in civilized international discourse.”
The next morning, when the Taiwanese president finally stood before a rain-soaked crowd of several tens of thousands and delivered his speech, it was indeed “erudite” and “lofty.” He promised to “establish a dynamic ‘peace and stability’ framework” with China “to guarantee there will be no unilateral change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.” To underscore this pledge, Chen “proposed” that the process of rewriting Taiwan’s constitution–a key plank in his re-election campaign platform–exclude “issues related to national sovereignty, territory and the subject of unification or independence.” This, of course, was at the center of the Bush administration’s anxieties that the new constitution would explicitly declare Taiwan independent from China.
To mollify China, President Chen said Taiwan “would not exclude any possibility” for a new relationship across the Taiwan Strait–”any possibility” being a euphemism that includes unification with China. “In the future,” he said, “the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China–or Taiwan and China–can seek to establish relations in any form whatsoever.” A new relationship with China, however, could only be established “if both sides are willing, on the basis of goodwill, to create an environment engendered upon ‘peaceful development and freedom of choice’” and, of course, it needs “the consent of the 23 million people of Taiwan.”
These words were a relief to the Bush administration, but did not assuage Beijing. “Chen Shui-bian has shown no sincerity to improve relations,” fumed Chinese government spokesman Zhang Mingqing. Zhang demanded “if he has sincerity to improve relations, he must acknowledge that Taiwan and mainland China together both belong to a single country,” and repeated the Communist government’s long-standing threat that China would “pay any price” to force Taiwan’s unification. Disregarding White House opinions about what constitutes suitable “international discourse,” Zhang again promised to “thoroughly crush schemes for Taiwan independence.”
Most Taiwanese, even those who solidly support Taiwan’s independence, were uplifted by President Chen’s speech–probably for the same reason that the Chinese were livid. They and the Beijing government agree on one thing: that (in Zhang’s words) “the content of the whole speech was completely about Taiwan’s status as an independent country”.
And this was true. President Chen repeatedly equated “Taiwan” with the “Republic of China” and at one point he even explicated that “the Republic of China now exists in Taiwan, the Pescadores, Quemoy and Matsu. This is a fact.” He had been “mandated by the people of Taiwan to defend the sovereignty, security and dignity of this nation” and he dwelt at length on the need “to forge a strong will to defend ourselves, proactively strengthening our defense equipment and upgrading our self-defense capabilities.”
Senior State Department officers assure me that these points were not lost on the Bush administration. With Chen’s narrow election victory, Washington concedes that “Taiwan independence is now in the mainstream.” Supporting the expansion of democracy remains a “pillar” of the Bush foreign policy, and in the administration no thought is given to backing away from America’s commitment to Taiwan’s democracy. Truth be told, the Bush administration has no philosophical problem with the concept of an “independent Taiwan” except that China threatens war–and threatens credibly–should Taiwan take that route.
While Washington had signaled Taipei that “there are limitations with respect to what the United States will support as Taiwan considers possible changes to its constitution” the Bush administration is also telling Beijing that there are limits to its “one China Policy.”
In sworn testimony before Congress on April 21, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly admitted that “our one China policy” contained “sometimes contradictory elements.” Homing in on the core contradiction between support for democracy in Taiwan and Communist China’s demand that the U.S. recognize the island as Chinese territory, Rep. Grace Napolitano (D., Calif.) pressed Kelly for a definition of “our One China policy.”
Kelly was undiplomatically candid in his reply. “I’m not sure I very easily could define it,” he began, but he quickly added, “I can tell you what it is not.” “It is not,” he said, “the One-China principle that Beijing suggests,” but he offered that “it does convey a meaning of solidarity of a kind among the people on both sides of the straits that has been our policy for a very long time.” Chen’s speech echoed Kelly’s by noting that “the peoples on both sides share a common ancestral, cultural and historical heritage.” Chen even conceded that he “can understand why the government on the other side of the Strait, in light of historical complexities and ethnic sentiments, cannot relinquish the insistence on the ‘One China Principle.’”
But Chen warned that “if the other side continues to threaten Taiwan with military force, if it persists in isolating Taiwan diplomatically, if it keeps up irrational efforts to blockade Taiwan’s rightful participation in the international arena,” the Taiwanese will be further alienated and “the divide in the Strait” will widen.
Kelly’s redefinition of “our One China policy” in congressional testimony was the first time an American administration has evinced some appreciation for the profound political changes that have unfolded on Taiwan since constitutional democratization on the island began in 1991. And it was the first hint that the U.S. is willing to speak in terms of “One China” that does not involve anybody’s claims to sovereign territory. McClellan’s sharp rebuke was the first time since the brutal Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 that any administration had suggested the Beijing regime was “uncivilized.” It was sharper, even, than President Bush’s complaints in December about Chen’s willingness to “unilaterally” change the status quo in the Strait.
The administration’s new show of support for Taiwan’s democratically elected president as he moves into his second term is a sign that its China policy is undergoing a reappraisal. In the end, if Beijing’s bellicosity in the Strait is to be moderated, Washington’s policies need consistency and firmness. And in the end, if Taiwan’s president wants to keep the support of his American counterpart, he should keep sending his chief-of-staff for regular consultations in Washington. Communications are much better that way.
–John J. Tkacik Jr. is a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.