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Reevaluating China-U.S. Relations

March 22, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: George W. Bush ran for President promising to take a new approach to China.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The current president has called the relationship with China “strategic partnership”. I believe our relationship needs to be redefined as one as competitor. Competitors can find areas of agreement, but we must [make] it clear to the Chinese that we don’t appreciate any attempt to spread weapons of mass destruction around the world, that we don’t appreciate any threats to our friends and allies in the Far East.

MARGARET WARNER: Since taking office, Bush officials have elaborated only slightly and without much in the way of specifics.

COLIN POWELL, U.S. Secretary of State: We don’t view them as an enemy. We don’t wish to make them an enemy, but at the same time we have to be realistic about the relationship. They’re not a strategic partner. They are a trading partner, they’re regional competitors. We sometimes have very different interests in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: This talk is about to be put to the test next month when President Bush faces a decision on whether to sell advanced weaponry to China’s island neighbor Taiwan. The U.S. recognizes Beijing’s claim to Taiwan as part of China, but Washington is committed under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to sell Taiwan the arms it needs to defend itself. These annual arms sales are a source of friction with Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.

Controversy this year centers on Taiwan’s request for four state-of-the-art Navy destroyers, outfitted with so-called Aegis radar technology, capable of tracking 100 targets simultaneously. China fears the Aegis radar could ultimately link Taiwan to a U.S. missile defense shield.

Hoping to head off the sale, China’s top diplomat, Vice Premier Qian Qichen came to the U.S. this week, meeting with Secretary Powell yesterday and President Bush today. In New York Tuesday, Qian warned that an Aegis sale would increase the chances of a China-Taiwan military confrontation and cause a serious rift in the China -U.S. relationship.

QIAN QICHEN: But the Taiwan question is such a major one, that it is actually the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations. It must be taken seriously and handled properly.

MARGARET WARNER: But leaders in Taipei say that’s exactly why Taiwan needs the destroyers with their Aegis technology. Pointing to China’s missile build-up, a government editorial this week said: “The time to arrange these arms sales is now, before it is too late.”

China has installed some 300 missiles along its coastline aimed at Taiwan, and U.S. intelligence says it is adding 50 additional missiles each year. At the beginning of today’s meeting with Qian, President Bush was asked about the weapons sales issue.

REPORTER: Is there anything that China could say or do that would influence your decision about which weapons to sell Taiwan?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This meeting will give me a chance to confirm the fact that I will honor our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Law. I look forward to explaining that as clearly as I can to our distinguished guest. If he cares to bring up the subject and wishes to make a case, I will be glad to listen. But no decision has been made yet.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the choice facing President Bush, we turn to Michael Pillsbury, a former Pentagon officials in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He’s now at National Defense University. He was in Taiwan last month visiting military and political leaders.

Susan Shirk, deputy assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs during the Clinton administration. She’s now a professor at the University of California, San Diego; and Bates Gill, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Welcome to you all.

Michael Pillsbury, starting with you. Before we get to the choices that President Bush has to make, explain to us briefly, why does Taiwan want these Aegis-equipped destroyers so badly, and why is China so vehemently opposed?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, to start with Taiwan first, they feel quite vulnerable to the missile build-up of the last several years. It probably became more dramatic in ’95-’96 when Beijing fired missiles quite close to Taiwan. So it’s a public issue that’s debated by the Taiwan parliament. Even taxi cab drivers will tell you, “You must sell us the Aegis ship to help us against these missiles.” So I think it’s a public issue there.

In Beijing, it’s considered much more a matter of nationalism. They don’t want America to split Taiwan away from the Chinese people. And China tends to believe any sale at all of any weapon, no matter how… even a rifle to Taiwan, somehow will bring about independence for Taiwan, and this really inflames the nationalistic feelings of taxi cab drivers in Beijing, as well as in Taiwan.

MARGARET WARNER: But Susan Shirk, Taiwan has a long list of weapons they want in this arms sale. Why is the Aegis-equipped destroyer issue front and center, so controversial for both countries?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, because people in all three capitals view the Aegis destroyer as a building block of the upper-tier TMD system.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking now about a theater missile defense?

SUSAN SHIRK: That’s right. So it’s acquired this great symbolic and political value to all sides.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that Beijing means it when they say… when they threaten, as Qian did in his speech today… Excuse me his speech Tuesday, one, that it really would cause a rift in the U.S.-China relationship and; two, he said– let me see if I’ve got this– he said that if the sale went through, that the whole relationship between China and Taiwan would change from a peaceful approach to reunification to a military approach. Do you take those threats seriously?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, I’m not sure what they will do, but there could be a strong nationalistic reaction, and they could act out. There are hot heads on both sides of the strait. And if we decide to sell Aegis now, instead of selling a lot of other equipment they need instead, it’s acquired this symbolic value, and so there could be a strong nationalist backlash in China, not just among the military, but I think this would be supported among the population, as well because the Taiwan issue has gotten all wrapped up in domestic politics in China. You’ve got a very insecure leadership that is stoking nationalism, and Taiwan is the hot-button issue of nationalism.

MARGARET WARNER: Bates Gill, what would you add to that?

BATES GILL: I would only add that, at this point, the president has a very difficult situation to have to face within his own party. There’s a division there amongst conservatives and more internationalist-leaning persons in the party. So there’s going to be this domestic issue that he to deal with at home but also deal with the broader geo-strategic issue of also maintaining a stable relationship with China. I think that what we probably ought to think about, is instead of zeroing in so narrowly on the transfer of four ships, we ought to embed this in a broader geo-strategic context and make a more prudent decision.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I want to get to that but, Michael Pillsbury, I want to point out here or see if I’m correct in this, even though Taiwan is very concerned about these missiles, this missile build-up, isn’t it the case that these destroyers actually right now don’t have the capability to protect against missiles? I mean they might be able to track them, but they don’t have the ability to knock them out?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: That’s right. There’s no real urgency to the sale of the Aegis because, first of all, it couldn’t be delivered for eight or nine years. Secondly, Susan Shirk’s quite right. China fears they could be the basis for an upgrade later — once our own Navy can do it — to become a theater missile defense system. But that’s really several years into the future. Why this has become an issue now, I don’t really know. I think somebody may have deliberately misled our Chinese friends in Beijing that they should oppose this now, publicly and very strongly for reasons that are a mystery to me because, as I say, it’s eight years off. We can’t do it. It can’t be a missile defense system for quite some time. So it’s somewhat of a puzzle why they’re so excited about this issue.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Susan Shirk, how do you think the president should balance these competing interests? And what can he do?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, I’d say not this year. I’d say there are a lot of items on Taiwan’s wish list that it really does need this year. It definitely needs to improve its backward navy, not necessarily with the Aegis destroyers, but with some other new ships. It needs help with training, it needs help with logistics, it needs help with air defense. It needs help with civil defense, with hardening airfields and other military targets.

We have a legal and a moral obligation to help Taiwan defend itself, and there are many ways we can do that. I agree completely with Bates. We shouldn’t fixate on these four ships.

MARGARET WARNER: So what, Bates Gill, should the president do?

BATES GILL: I think, first of all, the right message is being sent today, that is a very clear message that the ball is really in China’s court. They’re the ones who are destabilizing the situation; they’re the ones who are engaged in the missile build-up, which we really can’t tolerate for our own national interests, as well as our legal obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act.

Once that signal is sent, I think it ought to be very clear that they’re going to have to take some steps to show restraint, that we are favorably disposed to helping Taiwan in the area of defense against missile attack, and that if this build-up continues, we are going to have to go forward with the types of transfers that they’ve drawn red lines on, up to and even including the Aegis destroyers. But I would say for now, we probably ought to wait but let Beijing know clearly that we’re predisposed in this direction.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think when the president – and he did a couple of times said in his discussions, “I want to remind my distinguished visitor that we are committed to the Taiwan Relations Act,” which is the act that requires the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself, that he’s sending that signal that essentially the degree of defense that Taiwan needs depends on the degree of offensive threat from you, China?

BATES GILL: Exactly – because China’s always reminding us of the so-called three communiqués: One of which the last one under the Reagan administration wrote in the text that we would decrease in quantity and quality our arms sales to Taiwan. But the context of that agreement was that there would be stability in the strait, that China wouldn’t take steps to destabilize the situation, which they have done with this missile build-up. So it’s important to remind China of that.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Pillsbury, what do you think he should do?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, there’s a lot of pressure from Congress that the president has to take into account, as well. There are a series of letters already on their way advocating the sale of the Aegis, quite a few other systems, the ones that Susan Shirk alluded to.

There’s a history of a major problem last year when the House of Representatives passed by more than two-thirds something called the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. There’s always a threat to bring that up again this year in both Houses. So the president has to take into account not just China and Taiwan’s request and with the military authorities of the DOD have to say about the balance, which Bates mentioned under the act he has to do, but also congressional pressure. And as your piece pointed out, his own campaign promise that he’s going to redefine the relationship to something different than President Clinton did. How to do all those… take all those four vectors into account is no easy task.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think there’s some way to set up something that is sort of conditional, such as Bates Gill was suggesting, maybe not go ahead with the sale but essentially say, “We’re going to, unless?”

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Yes, I think there is room for several kinds of creative compromises on the Aegis system. Bates’ concept is one good one, to link the build-up to the sale of different systems, including the Aegis. I think we have to give some credit to Susan Shirk and the Clinton administration for already raising this with the Chinese, making this linkage clear to them and hoping that they will at least cap their missile build-up, if not possibly reduce it.

But as you know, the Chinese will not start arms-control talks with the United States, yet. This is something we all look forward to. So Bates’ concept is give them an incentive. We will sell this… now, one could go a step further and say why not sell it now, why not sign the piece of paper and announce it but then say, “We’ll stop the sale,” because we have eight years to make the transfer. And if during those eight years there’s a reduction, well, then sales can be undone, perhaps by Taiwan’s own request. They could save $4 billion– actually, $5 billion– by canceling the sale a little bit down the line and just paying for the small amount they’ve put in in the first year.

SUSAN SHIRK: I don’t think that’s realistic or practical. There’s no precedent for that, never has it happened that we approved a system that we in fact later didn’t transfer or Taiwan didn’t want. I mean basically, Taiwan never met a major weapons system that they didn’t want, which is part of the problem, because they’ve been so focused on these major systems. They haven’t done the less dramatic steps that are really necessary to strengthen their defense.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Actually, Taiwan turned down a very similar system to the Aegis about seven or eight years ago. They’re coming back at it.

SUSAN SHIRK: Oh, that’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me have a brief final word actually from Bates Gill. Do you think we are all right to read so much into this decision? In other words, do you think that when the president makes this decision, it will be an important indication of how he plans to approach the Chinese?

BATES GILL: It will, but it’s not the be all and end all. This is a much bigger problem. Our future relationship with China certainly depends on far more than whether or not we sell four ships, but it has the potential of being highly politicized and causing a at deal of difficulty. I think the real focus has to be what this means in the geo-strategic context for our allies and for the longer term stable relationship with China.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Bates Gill, Susan Shirk, Michael Pillsbury; thank you all three.