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Thursday, April 4, 2002

U.S. provocations leave China guessing


HONG KONG -- Little more than a month after U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Beijing seemed to have laid the groundwork for a more stable and cooperative relationship between the United States and China, ties between the two countries are again in danger of unraveling as Washington openly moves to build a closer defense relationship with Taiwan.

China was taken aback when Washington allowed Taiwanese Defense Minister Tang Yiau-ming to pay a "private" visit to the U.S. to attend a defense conference in Florida at which he met with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly. This was the first time the U.S. had given a visa to a Taiwan defense minister since Washington broke diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979 to establish relations with Beijing.

Worse, at about the same time, news leaked of the Nuclear Policy Review by the Pentagon that envisaged use of nuclear weapons against China in the event of war in the Taiwan Strait. The angry Chinese called in U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt to lodge a protest.

"Where does the U.S. want to lead China-U.S. relations?" Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing thundered. "The Chinese people will never yield to any outside intimidation, including nuclear blackmail."

Despite China's protests, the Bush administration seems unlikely to swerve from its present course. Indeed, the U.S. Congress will be inaugurating a Taiwan caucus on April 9, the 23rd anniversary of the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself.

In the past, the U.S. had sought to maintain stability by urging China to renounce the use of force and by cautioning Taiwan not to do or say anything that the mainland would consider provocative. Now it is the U.S. that is taking actions clearly provocative to Beijing.

To be fair, the U.S. probably bent too far backward in earlier years to accommodate Beijing. It would not allow Taiwan's unofficial representative body in Washington to use the word "Taiwan" in its name, insisting on the clumsy title of Coordination Council for North American Affairs. This has now been changed to Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, but the word "Taiwan" is still forbidden. It is difficult to understand why this should be so, since Washington's unofficial embassy in Taipei is called the American Institute in Taiwan.

Part of the current pro-Taiwanese tide in the U.S. is no doubt due to the perception that China has been overly belligerent in its attempt to deny Taiwan a role in international affairs.

Of course, Beijing cannot be expected to abandon its principles and allow Taiwan to enter the United Nations. But China could garner much international good will if it was seen as willing to help Taiwan join organizations where statehood is not a prerequisite for membership.

Indeed, China could go further by proposing that organizations that only admit sovereign states as members change their rules so that Taiwan can join.

For now, China is caught in a dilemma. It badly wants good relations with the U.S., but it feels it cannot allow America, in effect, to re-establish relations with Taiwan.

In response to the issuance of the visa to Tang, China has canceled a naval visit to the U.S. It has also denied permission for a U.S. destroyer to visit Hong Kong. But it has confirmed that Vice President Hu Jintao is still on schedule to visit the U.S., probably late this month.

The U.S., for its part, appears genuinely interested in improving relations with China, but at the same time, it wants to push for much closer ties with Taiwan, despite the lack of diplomatic recognition. It seems to think that it can achieve both objectives, and appears willing to put its ties with China at risk in order to improve its Taiwan relations.

If the U.S. really values China's friendship, it will have to do something to allay Beijing's concerns. China does not know where it stands with the U.S. anymore. It wants Washington to promise never again to allow senior Taiwan officials to visit. Failing that, however, it may well be satisfied with reassurances that such trips will be capped at some level.

The relationship is clearly important not just to China but also to the U.S. It is a relationship that needs to be nurtured. It cannot indefinitely sustain the battering it has received in recent months.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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