WASHINGTON — When diplomats speak they tend to be, well, diplomatic. Deliberate vagueness and discreet imprecision are their common tools. Their goal: greasing the inevitable frictions that arise among the nations of the world.
This is not the rhetorical approach that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich took on his recent trip to China, Japan, and Taiwan.
As he traveled through Asia, Mr. Gingrich was startlingly blunt about one of the core issues of American diplomacy: the US commitment to defend Taiwan against any Chinese aggression.
It was a swashbuckling performance that won the embattled Speaker plaudits from many in his party. Conservatives felt that compared with Vice President Al Gore, who preceded him in Beijing, Gingrich looked as decisive as Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
But Gingrich-as-ambassador irked many in the administration. And some Asia experts worry that the US-China-Taiwan triangle is one place where vague diplo-speak is really the right approach.
Warning China is one thing, they say. But neither does the US want Taiwan to provoke its giant neighbor. "There is no good international policy reason for him to be doing this," says one adviser to the administration on Asia issues. "He's not helping anything."
The whole thing is a case study in the virtues and drawbacks of diplomatic formulations. It's also a lesson in the use of foreign trips to burnish domestic political images.
Consider the experience of Mr. Gore. He appeared eager to deal diplomatically with his Chinese hosts. The result was an overall performance that The New York Times editorialized as "anemic," as well as photos of an embarrassed Gore participating in a Chinese champagne toast.
Gingrich, on the other hand, looked eager to lecture everyone he met about the need for human rights and democracy.
"I think Gingrich did a good job," says Arthur Waldron, a China expert and professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
But did he go too far with his remarks on Taiwan? If China attacks, "we will defend Taiwan. Period," said Gingrich.
It's an issue that may seem speculative but is in fact one of the most delicate points now facing the US in Asia. With Hong Kong reverting to Chinese rule this summer, Beijing is likely to focus even more on its long-held desire to reunite with Taiwan.
The Chinese believe Taiwan is theirs by historical right. The Taiwanese, for their part, are justifiably proud of their economy and nascent democracy, and eager to preserve both.
Last March, the Chinese military, in an unsubtle show of force, tested ballistic missiles at sea so close to Taiwan as to effectively close its ports. Washington felt compelled to dispatch a show of force to the area in the form of two carrier battle groups.
Some might see the presence of these billion-dollar weapons as an articulate yet nonlanguage-based pledge of protection.
Gingrich, however, felt it was a pledge that needed words. An absence of clarity could cause something like "the Dean Acheson problem of 1950," he said. He was referring to then-Secretary of State Acheson's omission of South Korea in a speech on the US defense perimeter in the Pacific. Some experts believe this omission encouraged North Korea to attack the South, starting the Korean War.
The problem, say some experts, is that such forceful speech might embolden Taiwan. It could lure the Taiwanese, eventually, into a declaration of full independence, secure behind the shield of US carriers.
In the past, China has said it would attack Taiwan in the wake of such declaration, no matter what. Many experts believe the threat.
"A war will break out if China thinks it is losing Taiwan permanently," says Tom Christensen, a Taiwan expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Since 1972, the US has had a "one China" policy that precludes official Taiwanese independence. (Speaker Gingrich did reiterate support for this policy on his Asia trip.) Thus, technically speaking, the US might not be committed to defend Taiwan, "period," as Gingrich said, if an independence declaration were involved.
But a US administration would find it politically difficult to sit on its hands in such a circumstance. That's the virtue of diplo-speak, say some experts: It allows all involved to have their principles, with as little friction as possible.