Senator Clinton backs ‘strategic ambiguity’ on Taiwan policy
By Demetri Sevastopulo and Andrew Ward in Washington
Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, on Thursday said she supported the US policy of maintaining “ambiguity” over whether Washington would defend Taiwan in a conflict with China.
The New York senator was responding to Michael Swaine, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who claimed she previously expressed doubt that the US would defend Taiwan.
The US is required to help Taiwan defend itself under the Taiwan Relations Act. But successive US administrations have generally sought to maintain a policy of ambiguity over whether the US would actually defend Taiwan in case of war.
In a video interview with Foreign Policy magazine on its website (download MP3 audio file) Mr Swaine said: ”I talked to Hillary Clinton a couple of years ago…She said ’oh, the United States government, the people of the United States would never go to war over Taiwan’.”
Philippe Reines, spokesman for Mrs Clinton, said that was not an “accurate reflection” of her position.
“Senator Clinton has been a clear and consistent supporter of the longstanding US policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the US response to a military conflict between China and Taiwan,” Mr Reines said.
Mr Swaine on Thursday declined to comment. Foreign Policy later removed the video from its website. Mr Reines said his office had not requested the removal. A spokesman for Carnegie, which owns Foreign Policy magazine, said it was removed because the comments were part of a private conservation.
Michael Green, a former senior Asia adviser to President George W. Bush, said he doubted Mrs Clinton advocated the position outlined by Mr Swaine.
“If any candidate said they would not stand by the Taiwan Relations Act, it would be a major change of policy, and a major retreat in the face of an enormous Chinese arms build up,” Mr Green said.
Mr Swaine’s claim comes at a sensitive moment for Mrs Clinton as she tussles with Barack Obama, her main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, over foreign policy.
Mrs Clinton has sought to portray Mr Obama, a first-term senator for Illinois, as naive and weak while trumpeting her greater foreign policy experience.
The spat continued on Wednesday after Mr Obama ruled out the use of nuclear weapons to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan “in any circumstances” if he was elected president.
Mrs Clinton said presidents needed to be “very careful” about discussing hypothetical use of military force.
“I don’t believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or the non-use of nuclear weapons,” she said.
Earlier in the week, Mr Obama said he would be prepared to take military action against terrorists in Pakistan with or without approval from Islamabad - a remark that appeared aimed at demonstrating his willingness to take tough foreign policy decisions.
But this too drew criticism from Mrs Clinton, who said US military strategy “should not be telegraphed or discussed for obvious reasons”.
The claims by Mr Swaine also come as Washington grows increasingly frustrated with Chen Shui-bian, the Taiwanese president, who recently vowed to hold a referendum to gain support for a push for Taiwan’s membership in the UN under its own name.
Ralph Cossa, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said US policy on Taiwan has been designed to prevent either Beijing or Taipei from upsetting the status quo because of a misreading of US intentions.
“You don’t want China convinced that we won’t respond, but you don’t want Taiwan convinced that we will,” said Mr Cossa.
Peter Rodman, a former senior Bush administration Pentagon official now at the Brookings Institution, declined to comment on the politics of the presidential campaign, but stressed that Washington needed to ensure its deterrence was as unambiguous as possible to ensure China did not get the wrong message.