Sat, Dec 04, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Reading tea leaves on US policy

By Li Thian-hok李天福

US Secretary of State Colin Powell will depart from his post as soon as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice is confirmed by the Senate. Rice's job will be taken by her deputy Stephen Hadley. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has also resigned. It is difficult to speculate how these changes in President George W. Bush's foreign policy team will affect US policy towards Taiwan and China, because there are many uncertainties.

The outcome of US efforts to stabilize Iraq is uncertain. Even if the US were able to eventually extricate itself without leaving chaos behind, it is not clear how long US forces will be embroiled in Iraq. The US preoccupation with the war in Iraq affects its policy towards China and Taiwan.

Iraq and the war against terrorism consume so much of the Bush administration's energy that it is unlikely to devote much attention to the long term effects of its current relations with China and Taiwan.

This means the focus will be on the short term objective of maintaining the status quo. Day-to-day diplomacy would be left to the middle-level officials. The views and attitudes of the new officials may thus wield greater impact on policy direction.

Yet we don't know who will be the new deputy secretary of state and who will manage the State Department's East Asian Bureau.

Powell's remarks in Beijing last month that it is firm US policy not to regard Taiwan as a sovereign nation was never retracted. Despite the State Department's assurance that US policy has not changed and the reiteration of former president Ronald Reagan's Six Assurances, there is lingering concern in Taipei and among observers that Washington may be falling into the trap of Beijing's lien mei chu tai (using the US to subdue Taiwan) strategy, even though Powell was not speaking for the Bush administration when he said inadvertently that the US seeks Taiwan's "reunification" with China.

The term "reunification" is also a misnomer because Taiwan was never a part of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan has been separated from China since 1895, when the Qing dynasty ceded Taiwan and the Pescadores to Japan in perpetuity.

In April 2001, Bush said the US would do "whatever it takes" to help defend Taiwan from Chinese attack. He then offered to sell Taiwan a robust arms package.

Since then US-China relations have improved significantly. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US, Washington has sought Chinese cooperation in the war against terrorism and in arranging the six-party talks with North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue.

With the rapid modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and China's growing ability to project its military power, Washington is compelled to adopt a conciliatory posture towards Beijing. Most of of the US ground forces are stuck in Iraq and the US military is stretched thin. Washington is wary of any conflict elsewhere on the globe.

This is part of the reason for Bush's rebuke of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in the White House on Dec. 9 while sitting next to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).

Bush speaks with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) on the telephone regularly. Without Rice close at hand in the White House, the question arises as to whether Bush can adequately cope with China's devious and seductive diplomatic pressure.

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