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September 21, 2017

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Bush implies U.S. can't afford a Taiwan crisis

To conservatives, it was a shocking scene. President Bush sat chatting chummily in the Oval Office with the premier of communist China and harshly rebuked the democratically elected leader of America's old friend and ally, Taiwan.

"The only word I can use is 'appalled,' " said John Tkacik, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation and a staunch administration supporter. "The spectacle of the American president who just gave such an eloquent speech in Whitehall barely three weeks ago, saying the global expansion of democracy is a pillar of American foreign policy. ..."

His voice trailed off in disbelief. "This just simply belies that."

Behind the jarring imagery, however, was a simple message. The Bush administration feels that it cannot afford a political crisis that could draw the United States into a war over Taiwan while it has its hands more than full in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.

So the president on Tuesday expressed his opposition to President Chen Shui-Bian's pledge to hold a March 20 referendum that China finds provocative.

"We oppose any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo," Bush said. "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."

Translation: "The president's top goal is preserving the peace in the Taiwan Strait," a senior administration official said. "We are in no way abandoning support for Taiwan's democracy or for the spread of freedom," he insisted.

But to some Republicans, it appeared that a president of their own party had done the unthinkable — sided with a Communist leader against democratic Taiwan on a key issue: the island's right to hold a referendum.

Three key neoconservative intellectuals issued a blistering statement Tuesday calling the president's words "a mistake" and charging the U.S. government with opting "to at least partly appease Beijing." China has threatened Taiwan with war if it declared independence.

"Appeasement of a dictatorship simply invites further attempts at intimidation," wrote William Kristol, editor of the conservative bible The Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan, an influential foreign policy analyst, and Gary Schmitt, of the Project for the New American Century. "Standing with democratic Taiwan would secure stability in East Asia," they wrote. "Seeming to reward Beijing's bullying will not."

Some suspected that the Bush administration might have struck a deal with China, agreeing to pressure Taiwan in exchange for Chinese currency concessions or Beijing's help in forcing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. An administration official said any linkage with North Korea would be a "false equation."

Others saw no evidence of any quid pro quo, but plenty of indications that the administration is desperate to avoid a crisis at a time when America's military and diplomatic resources are painfully stretched by its other foreign entanglements.

"Much as only Nixon could go to China, so too only a conservative Republican president could make this statement about Taiwan," said Bates Gill, a China specialist at the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Being a Republican with strong conservative credentials, (Bush is) able to make these sorts of statements and probably get away with it."

Chen will likely weigh the domestic reaction to Bush's remarks and decide whether standing up against Washington and Beijing will help or hurt his re-election bid, Gill said.

"He's a very, very insightful and clever politician," Gill said. "If he senses that his actions, and the loss of confidence that's apparently being shown on the part of our president toward him is damaging his standing ... he will back off."

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