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Neo-cons cry 'appeasement' over Taiwan
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - In an extraordinary split with US President George W Bush, a neo-conservative-dominated think-tank close to administration hawks released a statement on Tuesday afternoon accusing the president of "appeas(ing)" China on Taiwan.

The statement by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was released just a few hours after Bush publicly chastised Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for planning a referendum on whether to ask Beijing to renounce the use of force against the island and remove the almost 500 missiles pointed at it. The proposed referendum is timed to take place on the same day as the March 10 presidential elections in which Chen hopes to be re-elected.

"We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo, and 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," Bush declared during a brief question-and-answer period with reporters with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao seated next to him.

Analysts said Bush's statement did not reflect a substantive change in US policy, but the directness - some said brutality - with which it was expressed came over as unexpectedly harsh, particularly his reference to Chen as "the leader of Taiwan" rather than as "president", a formulation that must have caused considerable satisfaction to Wen. Indeed, the Chinese premier expressed appreciation for Bush's words, as noted by Chris Nelson, an Asia specialist who writes an influential daily newsletter much read by US officials and embassies from the region.

PNAC, whose alumni include Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld among other senior administration officials, reacted with outrage.

Its statement, signed by PNAC chairman and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, PNAC co-founder Robert Kagan, and its executive director, Gary Schmitt, assailed Bush for failing to address Beijing's missile buildup and recent threats by senior defense officials there to go to war if Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, takes additional steps toward independence.

Questioning whether Chen's proposed referendum was designed to change the status quo, the three asked, "Can it be President Bush's position that Taiwan is not permitted to hold any democratic referenda on any subjects whatsoever?"

They then went on to attack Bush's statement as a "mistake", adding the dreaded "A" word that neo-conservatives have bludgeoned their worst political opponents with for the past 30 years. "Appeasement of a dictatorship simply invites further attempts at intimidation," they wrote. "Standing with democratic Taiwan would secure stability in East Asia. Seeming to reward Beijing's bullying will not."

The harsh denunciation, which is unlikely to win them many friends in the White House, caps a period of serious reverses for the PNAC crowd over the past several months as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated. As much as any group's, PNAC's recommendations about how to wage the war on terrorism post-September 11, 2001, had been taken to heart by administration hawks, particularly in Cheney's and Rumsfeld's offices. This began with an open letter produced by the group on September 20, 2001, which called for extending the anti-terrorism campaign to Iraq, whether or not Baghdad had any role in the September 11 attacks, and siding unequivocally with Israel in its own "war on terrorism" against the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Indeed, PNAC - or, more specifically, Kristol, Kagan and Schmitt - have often acted as mouthpieces for their friends in the administration, not only with respect to the "war on terrorism", but also on China. During the Hainan spy-plane incident in the spring of 2001, Kristol and Kagan, apparently reflecting the views of their friends in Cheney's and Rumsfeld's offices, repeatedly attacked Secretary of State Colin Powell for his diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis with China quietly and the final settlement that freed the US crew a "national humiliation".

The three are also closely associated with other prominent neo-conservatives, such as former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, whose offices are just five floors above PNAC at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and former Central Intelligence Agency chief James Woolsey, as well as Cheney's powerful chief of staff, I Lewis Libby, who was general counsel for the Cox Commission that investigated alleged Chinese theft of US military technology.

They have long argued that China represents Washington's greatest long-term threat and have supported Taiwan's independence. Another staff member, Ellen Bork, has been one of Washington's most outspoken defenders of Hong Kong and, among other topics, used the pages of the Weekly Standard last year for Israel to stop selling weapons to the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

But in recent months, the White House has been far less receptive to their appeals. Their allies in the Pentagon appear to have lost influence in Iraq itself, and their repeated calls to increase the number of US troops there have been rejected by both by the White House, which is increasingly concerned about next year's election, and Rumsfeld, whom they have also made a target. Furthermore, they have deplored the State Department's rising influence over US policy toward Iran, which their AEI friends have also referred to as "appeasement".

They have also grown increasingly upset by Bush's ever-closer relations to Beijing, particularly his dropping of the word "rival" to describe the US relationship with China and what they perceive as his retreat from an April 2001 statement to do "whatever it took to defend" Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

Pro-Taiwan forces have charged that the administration is sacrificing the island to what it regards as more urgent priorities, primarily the "war on terrorism" and the denuclearization of North Korea, not to mention the mushrooming bilateral trade deficit, all major items in the Bush-Wen meeting on Tuesday.

It is in this context that Chen's recent maneuvers, which most China specialists here believe are intended to gain him political support in advance of the March election, have rocketed Taiwan to the top of the bilateral agenda. To Chen's disappointment - as well as that of PNAC and other anti-Beijing forces - the White House clearly resents it.

Indeed, it was Kristol and Schmitt who last week grabbed the capital's attention by charging that the Asia director for the National Security Council, James Moriarty, and Bush's chief diplomat in Taipei, Douglas Paal, were "engineering a dramatic and dangerous shift in American policy toward Taiwan" opposed by both the State Department and the Pentagon.

They alleged in a public statement, whose charges were obligingly repeated by the neo-conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, that the two men were urging Bush to "declare, privately and perhaps publicly, that the United States opposes Taiwan's independence" and to "declare that it will not defend Taiwan if Beijing launches a military attack on the island in response to a 'provocation', ie, some action or statement by Taiwan that Beijing determines moves in the direction of independence".

It also disclosed that, as a first step toward this policy shift, Moriarty traveled secretly to Taipei "to deliver a stern warning against holding any referendum on any subject. Now he wants the administration to offer assurances to Premier Wen that the United States will indeed oppose referenda in Taiwan," they warned. "This means, in turn, that the administration will effectively be agreeing with Beijing that such referenda constitute a 'provocation'. So what happens when Taiwan goes ahead and holds its referendum this spring, as it surely will?" they asked.

Administration officials denied that any major change in policy was intended, but that, yes, indeed, Washington was worried that holding the referendum could be considered a provocation to China, which was precisely the message delivered by Moriarty to Chen. Indeed, Bush asked explicitly that the referendum not take place in a letter signed by Bush that Moriarty delivered. And that was also the message that Bush sought to deliver publicly on Tuesday.

Stated more precisely by a senior administration official who briefed reporters on Tuesday's talks, "Any referendum that seems to be a political statement that begins leading towards a ... unilateral attempt to change the status quo causes us concern."

In response, Wen aligned himself as closely to Bush as he could, noting that while "stability can only be maintained through unswerving opposition to pro-independence activities", China remained committed to pursuing peaceful reunification "as long as a glimmer of hope" exists. He even noted that "the Chinese government respects the desire of the people in Taiwan for democracy", but went on to accuse Chen of "only using democracy as an excuse and attempt to resort to defensive referendums to split Taiwan from China [which] ... the Chinese side can absolutely not accept".

To many analysts, it appeared that Chen, who early on Wednesday reportedly reiterated his intention to go ahead with the referendum, emerged as the big loser on Tuesday. "The impression one gets is that he is not managing cross-Strait or US relations very effectively at the moment," said Alan Romberg, a former high-ranking State Department Asia specialist who has just published a book on the history of official US-China-Taiwan relations called Rein In at the Brink of the Precipice.

"No one is thrilled about [China's] missile buildup, but over the last several months, an objective observer would have to say that Beijing has acted with restraint in light of all that's been happening in Taiwan," he said. "But that restraint is somewhat at risk, and the judgment at the White House was that point was being approached. When a low-key private approach [to Chen] doesn't work, this is what you get."

But this latest episode may also fuel the White House's unhappiness with the neo-conservatives.

First, the allegations of a conspiracy by Moriarty and Paal appear highly doubtful at this point, and the speed with which they were prepared to spread the charges "showed a certain recklessness", according to one official. Paal is considered particularly well connected politically and widely respected on Capitol Hill, where sympathy for Taiwan is especially strong.

Second, while the general consensus here and apparently in the White House, too, is that Chen's recent maneuvers were responsible for the growing cross-Strait tensions, Kristol, Kagan and Schmitt had a contrary view, depicting the latest crisis as China's responsibility.

"Here is what happened over the last month," they wrote. "The government of Taiwan proceeded about its democratic business in a legal and appropriate manner that threatened no one. The government of China decided to throw a fit to see if it could take advantage of US preoccupation with Iraq and North Korea to tilt US policy against Taiwan. And the US government decided to at least partly appease Beijing."

Not only does this analysis contradict the White House's view; it also accuses the US president once again of the dreaded "A" word that is normally reserved for liberal Democrats and France.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact [email protected] for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Dec 11, 2003

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