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Opinion

Time for Obama to rethink Washington's mild-mannered stance toward China

Before 9/11, the Bush administration was beginning to take a stronger stance against China on Taiwan. But after 9/11, Washington resumed a conciliatory relationship that has colored – for the worse – US-China relations.

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Mr. Bush was not pleased with Chinese behavior and, when asked later that month what America would do if China were to attack Taiwan, he responded: “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan. With that statement, Bush seemed to be putting US-China relations in a posture of strategic clarity. Although China experts in and out of the government rushed to assure Beijing that Washington’s policy toward Taiwan had not changed, Bush’s words, together with his approval of a large arms package for Taiwan, had delivered a healthy new deterrent message against Chinese adventurism and miscalculation.

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Then came the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which some in China cheered as showing an “arrogant” America getting what it deserved. (One of the callers to the Voice of America program on which I appeared during the tenth 9/11 anniversary week proudly proclaimed that he was among that minority celebratory group.)

The Bush administration responded by mobilizing a global coalition in a war on terror and launched invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While not directly participating in the military operations, China joined rhetorically in the counter-terrorism campaign but focused its efforts almost exclusively on the “separatists” and “splittists” in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The administration managed to convince itself that China was a reliable ally in the anti-terror project, and as the Clinton administration before it had believed, a useful partner in combating the growing danger from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In the post-9/11 strategic environment, at least as it was perceived, Bush never repeated his clear commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

Meanwhile, the newly elected administration of Taiwan began chafing at the constraints China continued to impose on its national identity and participation in international activities. Washington openly sided with Beijing in warning Taipei against these rhetorical “provocations.”

China was happy to pocket American concessions and affirmations of its role as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system and felt no obligation to deliver anything substantial on either terrorism or North Korea, nor to demonstrate its bona fides in any of the other areas previously at issue in the US-China relationship such as trade, currency manipulation, and human rights.

Beijing continued its deployment of ballistic missiles targeting the island of Taiwan, and in 2005, yet another Chinese general threatened nuclear attacks over Taiwan, this time against “hundreds” of American cities.

But it was Taiwan’s demands for greater international space that earned the strongest criticism from Washington. Perhaps encouraged by American annoyance with Taipei, in 2006, China enacted an “Anti-Secession Law” that purported to provide a legal basis for Chinese military action if Taiwan did, or didn’t do, a range of things, from declaring outright formal independence from China to simply taking too long to submit “peacefully” to Chinese Communist rule. Mr. Kissinger, the father of the “one China” policy, warned Taiwan in 2007 that “China will not wait forever” to take Taiwan, by force if necessary.

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