Imagine this: On a spring day in 2001, President George W. Bush steps off Air Force One on to the tarmac at Chiang Kai-shek airport in Taipei. He would be the first American president to visit Taiwan, which the People’s Republic of China regards as a renegade province.
Bush has suggested that if elected president he would visit Taiwan. “The president should visit our friends,” Bush said in an interview with columnist William Safire. “China is not our friend in the Far East. Our friends are Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.”
A Bush campaign spokesman re-affirmed last week that, if elected president, Bush might go to Taiwan.
The contrast with Bush’s most likely Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, is striking. Gore is a leading proponent of engaging China, the diplomatic term for using the incentive of U.S. commercial ties to encourage greater democratization there.
Gore recently said that that U.S. needs to have “a relationship with them within which we can try to affect their behavior and improve human rights, eliminate unfair trade practices and bring about the kinds of changes that will lead to further democratization in China.”
This split between the two frontrunners goes straight to the heart of the China issue in U.S. politics today.
Trade partner or menace?
One fact seems clear: The next president will take office at a volatile time in Sino-American relations.
Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui set nerves on edge in July when he said Taiwan would deal with the communists on a “state-to-state” basis which seemed to repudiate Taiwan’s previous policy of regarding itself and China as one country. Chinese officials announced “wartime mobilization drills” near Taiwan.
Complicating matters are the severe strains emanating from the accidental bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy during the Kosovo war, and, on the U.S. side, suspicions that serious nuclear secrets were lost to Chinese espionage at U.S. weapons labs.
These issues have exacerbated the split that already existed in the U.S. about the proper way to deal with China’s growing influence. That split is reflected in the field of U.S. presidential contenders divides itself roughly into two camps.
In one camp are the wary optimists about U.S. relations with Beijing who favor expanded trade with china. Gore and his chief Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, are in this category. And despite his Taiwan rhetoric, Bush belongs here as well, as does his Republican rival Elizabeth Dole.
In the other corner are those who portray the communist regime as a menace both to its own people and to American workers. Republicans Patrick Buchanan and Gary Bauer are the champions of this view.
Help defend Taiwan?
Republican (and soon perhaps Reform Party) presidential contender Buchanan says, “the question of how we would deal with a blockade or missile attack on Taiwan is among the most crucial facing the next president.”
For 20 years, the Taiwan Relations Act has been the basis for U.S. policy. The law commits the United States to providing Taiwan with enough weapons to defend itself.
But the law does not provide the next president with specific rules of engagement for a China-Taiwan crisis.
Charles Hill, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a U.S. diplomat who served in Hong Kong and on Taiwan, says the Taiwan Relations Act created “a fundamental ambiguity” —but a useful one. “The U.S. has not directly said it would act to defend Taiwan but in fact it would.”
But, Hill contends, in the last 18 months that underlying assumption has been eroded by “statements and actions of President Clinton that have encouraged the China to think that the U.S. would not come to Taiwan’s aid.”
Republican presidential contenders are united in portraying the Clinton administration as feckless in its dealings with Beijing.
Arizona Sen. John McCain says the Clinton administration ought to “change its failed policy of pressuring only Taiwan to avoid open hostilities. China must be made to understand that the use of force would be ...a serious mistake with grave consequences.”
Current GOP front-runner Bush said recently in an interview with the Washington Times, “I would help Taiwan to defend itself.”
“It’s very important for China to understand that we intend to fulfill our obligations to friends in the Far East,” Bush said. “There should be no mixed signals to China. China shouldn’t assume that because we trade, therefore we’re not going to follow the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act, for example.”
Rival GOP presidential contender Steve Forbes says, “we should make it clear that we will defend Taiwan from attack.”
Conservative activist Bauer, who is competing with Forbes and Buchanan for the conservative GOP vote, said Monday, “the U.S. went to war with Yugoslavia to guarantee self-determination for 1 million Kosovars. Will we abandon to the tender mercies of Beijing’s Communists the 22 million free people of Taiwan? God forbid! It would be one of the greatest betrayals in history.”
China no threat?
Buchanan sounds a pacific tone, arguing that “Despite its bellicosity, China does not today threaten any vital U.S. interest, and its emergence as a world power need not mean inevitable conflict.”
Buchanan recently said, “I don’t believe there’s going to be a cross-channel invasion.” He added, “I would not commit this country automatically to go to war in the event of a clash between Taiwan and China.”
Democratic presidential contender Bill Bradley emphasizes the need to restrain Taiwan.
“The United States should say to the Taiwanese government that if they take steps toward independence, that they can not count on us for any help,” the former New Jersey senator said last month.
At the same time Bradley said, if the Taiwanese do not move toward independence, then the U.S. should re-affirm to Beijing that “we would be there” if the China forces attacked Taiwan. “If the Chinese invade Taiwan, we are committed to help Taiwan,” Bradley said.
Trade with China
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration is trying to smooth Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization which sets rules for international commerce.
The trade issue divides both Republican and Democratic constituencies.
In the Democratic camp, organized labor, with the most formidable get-out-the-vote apparatus in the party, remains cool to Gore because of the administration’s push for China’s entry into the WTO. Industrial unions such as the Machinists fear that their members will lose their jobs due to re-location of manufacturing to China where, as the State Department’s 1998 Human Rights report said, “the Government continued to restrict tightly worker rights, and forced labor remains a problem.”
Boeing has shifted some production to China due to “offset” agreements under which Beijing demands that some aircraft manufacturing be done there if Boeing is to get continued access to the Chinese market.
On the Republican side, Bauer declared Monday that “the giddy portrait of China presented to us today by Corporate America and the Wall Street wing of the Republican Party is one of a big, bustling Capitalist Disneyland populated by millions of aspiring entrepreneurs. This portrait is willfully delusional.”
‘Last pair of chopsticks’
Buchanan’s rhetoric sounds swaggering when he warns China’s Prime Minister Zhu Rongji that “he’s sold his last pair of chopsticks at any mall in the United States” if his regime doesn’t stop harassing religious groups.
He adds that if the Clinton administration is determined to put the final touches on a WTO deal with Beijing and try to win Congressional approval of it, “this would be like dealing me a full house,” by rallying union members and conservatives to his anti-WTO banner.
In contrast, Bush argues that, “It’s to our country’s advantage to have trade with China. I think China ought to be in the WTO…. it’s to our advantage to open up Chinese markets to farmers and producers and entrepreneurs.”
Whoever the next president is, he will be working full time to keep peace within his own party’s ranks on the trade issue, even as he manages the delicate relationship with Beijing.