One China? Two Headaches

Backing both the favorite and the underdog in a boxing match might win points for evenhandedness, but it would leave sports fans scratching their heads. In the battle of affections between China and Taiwan, though, the Bush administration has done just that.

Both countries have been led to believe that they are enjoying the best relations with Washington in years. While this win-win stratagem stands in sharp contrast to the administration's divide-and-rule policies elsewhere in the world, it also contradicts a key element of George W. Bush's foreign policy -- the promotion of democracy -- and has irked some Bush supporters who are China critics. With presidential elections coming up in both Taiwan and the United States, the administration is now under pressure to take sides.

Four years ago, Bush sang a different tune. As a presidential candidate, he rebuked the Clinton administration for being too soft on Beijing. But when a candidate becomes president, he soon comes to understand that 1.3 billion Chinese are not easily ignored. China's huge and growing economy has U.S. businesses slavering.

Bush has acted accordingly. Although China's downing of an EP-3 spy plane in April 2001 heightened tensions, the Bush administration's reaction was restrained. After September 11, the love fest really took off. China signed on to the war on terrorism, pressured North Korea to negotiate, and downplayed its criticism of the Iraq War. Bush held several high-profile meetings with Chinese leaders that cemented the new relations, culminating in the inclusion of one of Beijing's bugbears, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, on the U.S. State Department's terrorism list.

Had Bill Clinton cozied up to Beijing in this way, his critics would have gone ballistic. Yet the so-called China bashers have largely muted their criticism of Bush. There was little outcry over the administration's failure to censure China before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in March 2003, the first time the United States has failed to do so in five years. The spy scandal involving Republican Party fund-raiser Katrina Leung, unlike the trumped-up case against Wen Ho Lee or Clinton's alleged links to Chinese campaign contributions, quickly disappeared from the news.

This is no mere partisan politics. The severest critics of China have pulled their punches because the Bush administration continues to back containment of Beijing's military ambitions and is pressuring the European Union not to lift its own arms embargo on China. More importantly to the anti-China bloc, Bush -- at least initially -- fulfilled his promise to beef up relations with Taiwan. A multibillion-dollar arms deal struck in April 2001 will provide Taiwan with U.S. submarines for the first time. Taiwanese officials visiting the United States, including President Chen Shui-bian in November 2003, have enjoyed greater freedom of movement and access to U.S. officials (although Chen is still not allowed to come to Washington -- that would push Beijing over the edge). Joyce Shieh, head of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, notes approvingly that "doing is more important than saying it loudly." George W. Bush is the "secret guardian angel" of Taiwan, according to Therese Shaheen of the American Institute in Taiwan.

Taiwan has upset this delicate balance, however, by pulling a California. Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have called a public referendum to coincide with Taiwan's presidential elections on March 20. Encouraged by warmer relations with Washington, the DPP is hoping to appeal directly to the electorate and thus bypass a parliament narrowly controlled by factions of the former ruling Nationalist Party, which are reluctant to rile China. In the referendum, the DPP is expected to ask voters whether they support a military upgrade and/or the pursuit of talks with Beijing on equal footing. The party wants to counter China's enhanced missile capabilities but has faced opposition within the old guard of the Taiwanese military as to the high price of U.S. weaponry, as well as to the Pentagon's insistence on force modernization. Cross-straits relations, while booming in the arenas of trade and investment, have made no progress in the political realm.

Beijing's rejection of the referendum has been predictable, as the DPP is pushing for a triple threat of greater democracy, military buildup, and independence. The Bush administration, meanwhile, has played the role of wild card. First, it sent several signals to the DPP to hold off on the referendum, which Chen Shui-bian ignored. Then, in a December 9 meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Bush sided with Beijing and the Taiwanese opposition by sternly warning Chen Shui-bian not to disrupt the status quo.

The resulting controversy has scrambled the ideological playing field and divided the China critics. On the one hand, the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century released a statement calling Bush's move "[a]ppeasement of a dictatorship." Arthur Waldron, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, sees National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice colluding with foreign-policy mandarins like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger "to wean W. away from his [supportive] policies toward Taiwan." Meanwhile, China critic Ross Munro, writing in the National Review, has accused the Taiwanese president of "recklessly" using the referendum to buoy support for his own party "at the expense of the vital national interests of the United States."

The fear in Washington is that the DPP is risking a regional crisis merely to get its supporters to the polls on March 20. The DPP sees things differently. "Chen Shui-bian and the Democratic Progressive Party are perceived as pushing the envelope too fast, too far," says Mike Fonte, the DPP's Washington liaison. "But what seems from this side like pushing the envelope is seen from that side as deepening democracy."

More troubling is the charge that "democracy" conceals the DPP's ambition to formalize its independence, even if this leads to war with China and a U.S. intervention. "[T]hey want independence, and they don't have the muscle to defeat China," Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out. "Taiwan's real goal is to drive the United States into fighting a war with China." And war, ultimately, will not strengthen the flowering of civil society and democratic expression that has taken place in Taiwan in the last decade. "Democracy has prospered in Taiwan because of the improved security stability climate in the region," says Alan Romberg, senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center. "The greatest threat to democracy in Taiwan is war."

The Bush administration's challenge has been to avoid war between Taiwan and China while encouraging democracy in both countries. It has largely sacrificed the latter in favor of the former, despite paeans such as Bush's November 2003 speech before the National Endowment of Democracy. James Mann, former Los Angeles Times correspondent and author of About Face, points out that Clinton went much further than Bush in vocally supporting democracy by explicitly making the settlement of Taiwan's future contingent on the assent of the people of Taiwan. Explains Mann, "[Clinton] didn't use the word 'democracy,' but that was much closer to a Wilsonian view than anyone had taken. I haven't heard the Bush administration repeat that phrase."

Democracy, it turns out, is a tricky thing. Referendums and elections in Taiwan potentially disturb the geopolitical balance; democracy in China, if pushed too hard, interferes with business and prosecuting the war on terrorism.

And there's American democracy to consider as well. After courting both Beijing and Taipei, the administration is now turning on China to appease American voters. Anticipating criticism that the U.S. economy is failing to produce manufacturing jobs, the White House is putting the blame on China's doorstep. China's refusal to float its currency rate came under sustained criticism from Treasury Secretary John Snow in fall 2003. Faced with a huge trade deficit with China, the Bush administration tried to push it to devalue its currency, which would make its exports more expensive compared with the U.S. competition. In December, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick joined the fray, accusing China of failing to open up its markets. The administration has slapped quotas on Chinese textiles and is gearing up for a battle on the Chinese government's support of its microchip industry. This China bashing, while mild compared to the saber rattling of Bush's early days in the White House, should come in handy in an election year.

The Chinese character for contradiction combines the ideograms for "sword" and "shield." According to the story behind this juxtaposition, a merchant in a Chinese market offered the strongest possible sword in the world, capable of penetrating all shields. One shopper happened to walk around to the other side of the stall only to discover the same merchant selling a very different product: the strongest possible shield in the world, capable of deflecting all possible swords. By seeking the best possible relations with both countries, while simultaneously putting at risk its own core values and constituencies, the Bush administration may soon discover its China policy collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

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