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Jewish World Review Aug. 31, 1999 /19 Elul, 5759

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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China's strait flush --
IN JANUARY 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech excluding South Korea from the "defensive perimeter" of East Asia. In June 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and attacked South Korea. To this day no one knows for sure whether Acheson's speech inspired the attack. But Joseph Stalin twice had forbidden North Korean attacks in 1949, and Acheson's defense of his speech was uncharacteristically unpersuasive. The lesson is clear. If you know you're going to have to defend an ally from attack–as President Truman quickly realized–then let everyone know in advance. Ambiguity doesn't mollify; it invites attack.

The Clinton administration seems to be ignoring this lesson. On July 9, Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui called for "special state-to-state relations" between Taiwan and China. Chinese leaders responded with typically furious invective, sent jets buzzing to the midpoint of the Taiwan Strait, and moved a surface-to-air missile unit to the shore. The Clintonites have weighed in against Taiwan and for China, holding up an arms sale and delaying an air-defense advisory mission. Bill Clinton has repeated his support of Beijing's "three noes" and, when Lee backtracked, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, "I think the explanations offered thus far don't quite do it." The administration says that it has warned both China and Taiwan that use of force across the Taiwan Strait would be "a matter of grave concern," echoing the ambiguous language of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. But there is a risk that Chinese leaders could decide that Taiwan is outside our "defensive perimeter" and that they could seize Taiwan's islands without retaliation.

"Coddling"? Yet in the Clinton years we have seldom gotten what we wanted when we appeased China, whereas we succeeded the one time we stood firm. That was in March 1996, when China lobbed missiles near Taiwan's major ports just before Taiwan's elections. Defense Secretary William Perry persuaded Clinton to order two aircraft carrier groups to the area, and the Chinese stopped firing. This was in contrast to the usual supine and submissive Clinton policy. In 1992, candidate Clinton denounced George Bush's "coddling" of China, and in 1993 President Clinton promised to revoke China's most-favored-nation trading status if it didn't improve its human-rights record. China refused to respond; in May 1994 Clinton caved, and he has backed renewal of the status ever since. He encouraged the late Ron Brown's trade missions to China (many executives on board made $100,000 campaign contributions), attended a White House coffee with associates of Chinese arms dealers, and allowed the retargeting of Chinese missiles by employees of defense contractors Hughes and Loral (the latter headed by the Democratic Party's No. 1 contributor in 1996).

Clinton generated campaign contributions by accommodating CEOs dazzled by "a billion customers," though few firms have made much profit in China (and none has shown a similar interest in the billion customers in India, with its British legal system and English-speaking elite). To evade the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton moved up his 1998 trip to China from November to June. During the visit, China gave up little and received everything it wanted: the first presidential endorsement of its "three noes," no independence for Taiwan, no United Nations seat, and no U.S. recognition of two Chinas.

Clinton can claim that in pursuing a "strategic partnership" with China he has followed the lead of every president since Richard Nixon, as the Los Angeles Times's James Mann shows in About Face, his illuminating history of U.S.-China relations since 1971. Nixon recognized China and told Mao Zedong that we were "tacit allies" primarily as a counterweight to the Soviet Union; intelligence cooperation, military aid, and formal diplomatic relations soon followed. U.S. presidents ignored China's human-rights record or predicted blithely that it would improve; all assumed China's leaders were solidly in control of a stable and economically growing country. The events of 1989 should have punctured these balloons. Mass demonstrations in early 1989 showed that many Chinese opposed their leaders; the Tiananmen Square massacre in June showed the leaders had no regard for human rights. The collapse of the Soviet empire in East Europe in 1989-91 removed the need for a Russian counterweight and let the Chinese use their arms to target newly democratic Taiwan.

One must hope that Clinton's appeasement of China does not thrust us into military conflict–and that the next administration's China policy will be based on post-1989 reality, not CEOs' illusions and presidents' fund-raising needs. Economically, China's power is often overestimated; the U.S. exports more to Taiwan. Militarily, China's power is limited now, but–thanks partly to the secrets we let the Chinese learn, the high-performance computers we've sold them, and the missiles Hughes and Loral helped them aim–it could be a strategic threat in 10 or 20 years. Mann's narrative supports the argument that China behaves better when confronted. Do the 2000 presidential candidates know that, and will the new president in 2001?

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©1999, Michael Barone