U.S. Asks China to Trim Threat to Taiwan
|By JOSEPH KAHN
February 12, 2004
BEIJING, Feb. 11-- A senior Pentagon official told Chinese leaders this week that they should withdraw missiles aimed at Taiwan, stressing that the burden of reducing tensions across the Taiwan Strait falls heavily on Beijing.
During meetings held here as part of a series of bilateral dialogues on security matters, Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, said he pressed Chinese officials to consider "whether actions by China to build up its missiles are serving our common interests" of maintaining peace between China and Taiwan.
Mr. Feith's comments, made in discussions with China's defense and foreign ministers, may pour cold water on China's hopes that the United States would intervene decisively to stop Taiwan from holding a referendum on cross-strait issues in tandem with its March 20 presidential election.
China has been urging the United States to use its clout as Taiwan's top ally and main arms supplier to keep the president of Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, from holding a plebiscite on relations with China. Beijing officials have said repeatedly that a referendum of that kind would set a dangerous precedent and amount to a step toward independence, which it vows to prevent with military action.
President Bush and State Department officials have spoken out against Taiwan's planned referendum and urged Mr. Chen not to provoke China. In diplomatic meetings over the past week, Chinese officials have urged the Bush administration to take firmer measures to head off the referendum.
Mr. Feith said he declined to discuss the diplomatic issues involved with the referendum in his talks here. When his Chinese counterparts raised the matter, he said, he repeated what Mr. Bush said in December, when he told the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, that he felt Taiwan's referendum could upset the status quo.
Instead, Mr. Feith said, he told the Chinese that they should carefully consider whether their own military posture is increasing tensions with Taiwan and ultimately harming their interests. The missile buildup, Mr. Feith said, "is maybe having some unintended consequences."
He also said that he urged his counterparts to stop saber rattling, as some Chinese military officials have done recently. "No one benefits from talk of war that gets everyone tense about the increased danger," he said.
In a diplomatic dialogue in which victories are measured in accents and elisions, Mr. Feith's comments are likely to be viewed as more beneficial to Mr. Chen than recent statements made by senior State Department officials. Just 10 days ago, on a similar visit to Beijing, the deputy secretary of state, Richard L. Armitage questioned the need for Taiwan to hold the referendum at all.
The subtle differences may well signal both mainland China and Taiwan that there is no consensus within the Bush administration to do more than it has already done to apparently little effect to dissuade Mr. Chen from holding the referendum.
The situation leaves Beijing facing an unpalatable choice. Officials could decide to accept the referendum as a fait accompli, handing a political victory to Mr. Chen and undermining their own credibility. Or China could follow through on its threats of military action, potentially drawing Taiwan and the United States into conflict.
Most analysts believe China will tolerate the referendum, partly because any belligerent steps could bolster Mr. Chen's re-election hopes. Mr. Chen's Nationalist Party opponent, Lien Chan, has said he favors a more conciliatory approach to managing relations with the mainland.
In fact, China sent firm signals on Wednesday that it intends to act with restraint. Zhang Mingqing, a spokesman for the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office, told a public briefing that China will not meddle in the election. "We won't get involved in Taiwan's elections," Mr. Zhang said.
"We don't care who will be elected. What we care about is after they're elected, what is his attitude in developing cross-strait relations and national reunification."
Analysts say that even if China wanted to influence the results, options are limited. Attempts to frighten or bully Taiwan voters into choosing China's favored candidate in 1996 and 2000 ended up bolstering the candidate China favored the least.
"China is very anxious about finding something they can do to stop the referendum," said Philip Yang, a political expert at National Taiwan University. "But to intervene before the election would just backfire."