Secretary of State Colin Powell astonished observers in both East Asia and the United States last week with extraordinarily candid comments on the Taiwan issue. His statements moved U.S. policy closer than ever before to Beijing's position that Taiwan must reunify with the mainland -- an especially surprising step coming from a conservative Republican administration.
Powell offered even more startlingly pro-Beijing comments in an interview with Hong Kong's Phoenix Television. He stressed that Washington had made it clear to all parties "that the United States does not support independence for Taiwan. It would be inconsistent with our One China Policy." He then made that point even more explicit: "There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation." Lest anyone still miss the point, he added, "Independence movements or those who speak out for independence movements in Taiwan will find no support from the United States."
Predictably, the People's Republic of China is quite pleased with Powell's rejection of any possible outcome other than reunification. Just as predictably, the Taiwanese government regards his comments as a betrayal.
It is breathtaking how far the Bush administration has moved from its early stance on the Taiwan issue. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush and his advisers criticized the Clinton administration for being too favorable to mainland China's position. Then, in a television interview on April 25, 2001, President Bush appeared to discard the nuances and caveats about protecting Taiwan that previous administrations had adopted. When asked by ABC News reporter Charles Gibson if the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan, the president replied, "Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that." Would the United States respond "with the full force of the American military?" Gibson pressed. "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," Bush replied. A few weeks after that statement, Bush approved the largest arms sales package to Taiwan since his father's controversial sale of F-16 fighters in 1992.
It wasn't just the firmness of the commitment to defend Taiwan that marked the administration's policy, however. In marked contrast to the attitude of the Clinton administration, "stopover" visits by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and other officials were welcomed. Such stopovers often included public appearances and meetings with Washington's apparent blessing, even as Beijing seethed. At one point in 2002, Taiwan's defense minister met "informally" with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz during a security conference put on by a think tank in Florida. That was the highest-level meeting between U.S. and Taiwanese officials in more than two decades.
But then came a shift in the administration's attitude -- a change that presaged Powell's even more emphatic actions. A crucial episode occurred during a visit by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in December 2003. With Wen at his side, President Bush stated that the United States opposed "any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo." Making it clear that his warning was directed primarily against Taipei rather than Beijing, he added that "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally, to change the status quo, which we oppose."
What accounts for the dramatic change in the Bush administration's policy? It appears that the administration believes that the United States needs China's help on an array of important issues. The desire for Beijing's assistance against Islamic radical groups is one significant area. But the need for China's cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue is probably the most important factor. U.S. leaders believe that China may be the only power that can induce Kim Jong Il's erratic regime to give up its quest for nuclear weapons. Washington knows that Beijing's help will not come for free, and that a change in U.S. policy on Taiwan appears to be the price that Chinese officials are demanding. The Bush administration apparently is ready to pay that price.
Washington's new, pro-Beijing tilt -- especially Powell's comments -- could lead to some unfortunate results. Not only will the U.S. attitude demoralize the Taiwanese, it also could send dangerous signals to the mainland. China has already deployed more than 600 missiles across the strait from Taiwan, and has engaged in saber rattling on more than a few occasions in recent years. Chinese officials may now believe that they have a green light from the United States to ratchet up the pressure on Taiwan for early talks on reunification.
That might not be so dangerous if the shift in U.S. policy included an elimination of the commitment to defend Taiwan from attack. But for all the recent changes in Washington's position, that ultimate move in the name of realpolitik has not been taken. The result is a muddled policy that creates the perfect environment for potentially lethal miscalculations. Powell's comments were morally dubious and strategically unwise.