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Washington Post Editorial

Mr. Bush's Kowtow to China

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

FOR THE PAST several weeks, Taiwan and China have been exchanging rhetorical broadsides about how the island's political future might be decided. Taiwan's democratically elected president, Chen Shui-bian, has been hinting that maybe his people should make a democratic choice about whether to unite with China or become independent. Beijing's Communist dictators have replied with bellicose threats to settle the matter by force, no matter the price. Yesterday President Bush essentially placed the United States on the side of the dictators who promise war, rather than the democrats whose threat is a ballot box. His gift to visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was to condemn "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan" while ignoring the sanguinary rhetoric of the man standing next to him. Mr. Bush had his reasons for doing so -- above all to avoid one more foreign policy crisis during an election year. But in avoiding a headache for himself, he demonstrated again how malleable is his commitment to the defense of freedom as a guiding principle of U.S. policy.

Democracy is not always pretty or pure, of course, and Taiwan provides no exception. Mr. Chen has started talking about independence and promoting referendums because he is locked in a reelection battle. Trailing in the polls, he seems to think he can win by producing the same dynamic that helped him four years ago, when China's threats and missile firings in the Taiwan Strait touched off a backlash among voters. Though Mr. Chen favors independence, most Taiwanese do not: Polls show they prefer to maintain the status quo indefinitely. So Mr. Chen cleverly proposes to hold a referendum on his own election day next March asking his citizens not to decide on Taiwan's status but simply to call on China to remove the 500 missiles it has positioned in range of Taiwan and to renounce the use of force. It is, perhaps, a cynical electoral ploy -- something known to occur in other democratic countries -- but it poses no threat to China.

Beijing's new Communist leaders, including Mr. Wen, would be wise to embrace Mr. Chen's demands. Without such steps, they will have no chance of persuading Taiwan's 23 million people to accept unification with the mainland. Instead they have fallen back on the sort of primitive threats that ought to cause other democracies to rally to Taiwan's defense. Last week one general predicted an "abyss of war" if Mr. Chen pressed his independence agenda, and in case that was considered a bluff, spelled out the price that he said China was ready to pay, from cancellation of the 2008 Olympics to mass casualties. "We will not sit by and do nothing when faced with provocative activities," Mr. Wen blustered in an interview with The Post last month.

It's bad enough that the world's largest dictatorship might consider a nonbinding referendum opposing the use of force to be a provocation justifying war. But for the United States to accept such totalitarian logic is inexcusable. Mr. Bush says his policy is to oppose any unilateral change in the status quo by either side and to observe the "one China" policy of previous administrations. Aides say Beijing has been told that the use of force is unacceptable. But Mr. Bush didn't say that. Instead he swallowed Beijing's argument that Mr. Chen's referendum is somehow intolerable, and he dispatched a senior aide to Taipei to insist that no vote be held. A president who believed his own promise to "favor freedom" would have said yesterday that China's "comments and actions" -- from invasion threats to missile deployments -- were of considerably greater concern than a proposed exercise in voting booths.