New York Times

Policy Adjustments on Taiwan

April 27, 2001


In a pair of television interviews Wednesday, President Bush reformulated the diplomatic language that has long defined American policy on defending Taiwan. By openly declaring that America would defend Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked attack from mainland China, he broke new ground. But subsequent clarifications by Mr. Bush, the State Department and White House aides emphasized that the charged language was less significant than it sounded, and China would be wrong to read too much into it. It has long been assumed that the United States would help Taiwan defend itself against mainland aggression, and Mr. Bush, in later statements, made clear that the United States was sticking to the other half of its policy of strategic hedging. That is to say, the island could not count on American help if it provoked Beijing by declaring independence.

In the first of the two interviews, on ABC's "Good Morning America," Mr. Bush said that the United States had an obligation to provide "whatever it took" to help Taiwan defend itself, and refused to rule out the use of American military force. A few hours later, on CNN, he reminded Taiwan that "we support the one-China policy," and would not consider a declaration of independence by Taiwan consistent with that policy. The implication of his words is that Washington would not feel obliged to defend Taiwan from the possible military consequences of such a declaration. Those two points, taken together, represent only a modest departure from existing American policy. That adjustment lies in the more explicit description of a possible military response to China.

Ever since Washington began the process of normalizing relations with Beijing in the 1970's, American presidents have used ambiguous language about defending Taiwan. In 1979 the United States abrogated its defense treaty with the island. But in the same year Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which said that any use of force or coercion against Taiwan would be treated as a matter "of grave concern" to the United States.

The language is deliberately cloudy, but its purpose is clear. Washington has wanted Beijing to understand that any unprovoked attack on Taiwan risked triggering an American military response. But it has also wanted Taiwan to know that American support was not guaranteed and might not be forthcoming if Washington judged that Taiwan's own actions had provoked Beijing into using force. Those same two broad messages were conveyed by Mr. Bush's statements yesterday.

Over all, however, it was hardly a smooth performance from a chief executive still suspected of feeling his way on foreign policy. Mr. Bush's staff has scheduled a series of hundred-day interviews. The picture emerges of a chief executive who has a firm line on domestic issues, but still seems shaky about the diplomatic message he wants to send.