MARCH 11, 1996
Tensions between The People's Republic of China (PRC), and Taiwan continue to simmer, as the PRC begins eight days of military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. navy has already deployed ships around Taiwan, and more vessels are on the way. Following a report by Ian Williams of Independent Television News Charlayne Hunter-Gault discusses the situation with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Winston Lord.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The largest show of U.S. force in the Taiwan Strait since Vietnam, why?
WINSTON LORD, Assistant Secretary of State: It's there as a precautionary measure. It's there to make sure there's no miscalculation in Beijing. It's there to reassure our friends in the area that we have a big stake in the stability and peace of that region. So it is there to make sure this current dangerous situation does not escalate further. Now, I'd like to make a couple of other quick points. It is a serious situation. We have conveyed that in unmistakable terms to China, including in recent days at the highest levels that what they're doing is reckless and provocative and designed toward intimidation of Taiwan, particularly after the election. We've also not only in our public and private statements indicated our concerns with the movement of these military assets. At the same time, we are not on the brink of war. The whole purpose of the movement of these assets is to make sure there is no miscalculation, to underline our interest, and to try to get this situation under control, so we're urging Beijing, as well as Taiwan, but, of course, in recent days particularly Beijing, that it's time to reduce tensions and get back to a direct dialogue. So we don't take this matter with any casualness. Obviously, you've seen our movements, but I don't want our listeners to think that we should exaggerate where we are at this point.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But, of course, the escalation is bigger than it's been before. I mean, there was a presence there last week--
SEC. LORD: Right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --when they were firing off the missile--missiles.
SEC. LORD: That's correct. The Chinese have continued provocative actions, and we've made very clear that we think this could have grave consequences if it escalated into military force. But the whole purpose of our movements, in addition to being precautionary and reassuring, is to make sure there is no miscalculation in Beijing.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, are they listening? I mean, there was a high-level Chinese official here this weekend--
SEC. LORD: Right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --who met with the National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake. Are they listening, any indication?
SEC. LORD: Well, so far, they have not adjusted their policies. We haven't seen any more firing of missiles since Friday. I don't know whether that's significant or not, but they are planning to go ahead with these live ammunition exercises. We'll have to see. I think we would like to see tensions reduced immediately. I want to make that clear. I think we're more apt to see Chinese restraint perhaps after the election in Taiwan than before it, but we want to see it right away.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But today, Defense Secretary Perry said that he had already received some indication--or some reaction from China to the U.S. stance. I mean, what was he referring to?
SEC. LORD: I didn't see his exact quotes. The Chinese officials in private and publicly have reaffirmed that they still are striving to resolve this issue peacefully, but they have not ruled out the use of force. They have not, however, given us any guarantees yet on reducing their provocative actions, but I think we have made it very clear to them that the whole premise of our China policy and our Taiwan policy is based on a peaceful resolution of this issue, so we'd like to think that the message will sink in, but we'll have to wait and see.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is the American build-up going to stop here, I mean, the troop build-up, the ships in the Straits, or does it stop there?
SEC. LORD: Well, I don't want to comment on where we go from here, and I would, in any event, leave that to the Pentagon.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But how would the U.S. respond if, if--you say that you were there to make sure that China didn't have a miscalculation--
SEC. LORD: Right.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --but what kind of miscalculation can they have, and then how would the U.S. respond?
SEC. LORD: Well, if there was any doubt in Beijing's eyes that we didn't have great interest in the area, and there shouldn't be any doubt, or that we wouldn't fulfill our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, in close consultations with the Congress, we would like to think that our actions and our rhetoric have removed those doubts. We cannot spell out in advance precisely what we would do. That would depend on the circumstances, how a conflict was provoked. We would want to consult with the Congress. Indeed, when the Taiwan Relations Act was passed in 1979, the Congress explicitly said at the time that they wanted any administration to consult with this before taking specific action. So we think it's inappropriate to try to spell these out in advance. What we have done is relay to the Chinese that there would be grave consequences if they resorted to force. But I'd like to add that we have no clear evidence now and Taiwan--and we are in very close tough with Taiwan--agrees with us that China does not intend to launch military actions. What they're doing is reckless and could lead to miscalculation or accidents, but so far, it is still psychological warfare directed at Taiwan's voters and Taiwan's leaders.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Who believe that there--as you heard in the ITN piece--that war--some of whom believe that war is imminent.
SEC. LORD: Again, I don't want to underestimate the seriousness of the situation. We wouldn't be moving ships if we didn't think it was serious, but I don't think we should exaggerate. We're not on the brink of war. The Chinese do not have the capability for all out attacks certainly. We see no intention of even more modest military moves, but in order to reduce even that possibility, we're taking these prudent, cautionary actions.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I understand your, your prudence and your care in the words that you've chosen, but let's just say for the sake of argument that there is some miscalculation or some accident--because we had someone on the program last week who talked about China's missile firings before this one, and one of them went awry--
SEC. LORD: Sure.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: --and blue up. I mean, is the U.S. prepared to engage or fight a war with China, or what? What would be the extent of what we could do?
SEC. LORD: I have to go back to the language of the Taiwan Relations Act, and what we've been saying recently, grave consequences, uh, and I won't be more specific in that for reasons I mentioned, but there's no ambiguity in the minds of Beijing that we would react strongly, and I think our friends in the region are reassured by what we're doing. But I want to stress that I think China understands that they would suffer great damage if they resorted to force. And I want to repeat, there's no evidence they plan to do that. In fact, they told us that they still hope for peaceful resolution. The impact on their economy, on their relationship with us, Japan, and the whole region, the impact on Hong Kong, which returns to China in 500 days, would be devastating, so we don't believe China has the motive or the incentive to resort to force but we want to make sure there's no calculation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what is the motive for what they're doing now? I mean, you heard Ian Williams' analysis in the piece. How do you read what they're up to?
SEC. LORD: Well, they're trying to attract perhaps the vote in the election, but I think it's more trying to have an impact on Mr. Lee or whoever is elected, and I think won't comment on that, who will be, but to make sure that whoever is elected pursues what they consider a one China policy and doesn't flirt with independence, so that you want to have that kind of impact. I think, frankly, that they're probably increasing Mr. Lee's votes. I'd like to add one other point, however. In addition to stressing to the Chinese the serious consequences in the Straits, we've also made it clear that it complicates our bilateral relations, obviously, and can see the congressional and domestic, as well as the administration's reaction to what they're doing. But the fact is--and we've conveyed this message as well to Beijing--we still would like to pursue a policy of engagement. It's in both countries' long-term security, political, and economic interests to do that. We're determined to do that, but the Chinese have got to show restraint and reasonableness on this and some other issues.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You were instrumental in drafting what they call the Shanghai Communique in 1972 that recognized one China. How legitimate is the Chinese concern that Taiwan is not going along with one China, that they really do want independence?
SEC. LORD: Well, again, I think I'll let Taiwan leaders speak for themselves, but they have said that--and Mr. Lee, in particular, has said that he is not for independence. He's for eventual reunification. Beijing professes not to believe him. I think the important thing is get these tensions down and resume direct dialogue between Taiwan and Beijing. We're urging both sides to do that. We're urging both sides to refrain from any provocative actions. We're urging both sides to resolve this issue peacefully. We will not get in the middle in terms of the terms of the resolution or what the future relationship should be. That is up to Taiwan and Beijing. However, we do insist the process be peaceful.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You don't have any concerns that the U.S. positioning itself that way and talking to China that way gives the impression that the U.S. is tilting toward the Taiwan side?
SEC. LORD: No. We've also made clear to Taiwan that we don't think it should take any actions that are provocative to give Beijing any pretext to escalate tensions. Obviously, our tension in recent days has been with Beijing, but we've also made clear to Taiwan we think it's in Taiwan's interest to resume dialogue with Beijing, and we hope both sides will move in this direction, at least after the election.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The ITN piece suggested that Beijing may have overplayed its hand and forced the pro-independence people into a tougher, stronger attitude about independence. What's your reading of that, or do you have a sense of that?
SEC. LORD: That's possible. It's still a very fluid situation. As I said earlier, I think there's a sense that it might strengthen Mr. Lee's hand, but he has said he is not for independence. There are also some pro-unification forces running for office. They're being hurt by Beijing's action. The impact on the pro-independence vote I can't judge. Some of those may rally behind Lee to strengthen his mandate, even though Lee is not for independence.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And just briefly, how is all this going to affect U.S.-China relations? We've had other problems recently.
SEC. LORD: That's right. Well, I want to stress it remains despite this current tension in our interest to have a constructive relationship with China. We've had intensive talks again recently and this process will continue at high levels in coming weeks and months to try to maintain a productive relationship. We have problems not only in Taiwan but trade, human rights, and non-proliferation, but we cooperate in various areas like Korea, Cambodia, the environment, fighting narcotics traffic, et cetera, and, therefore, our mutual challenge is to navigate the various difficulties we have, particularly over the next year, to maintain a constructive relationship for the long run. But what they're doing in the Strait is complicating this issue, and we've made that very clear.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.
SEC. LORD: Thank you.