A top Clinton administration official suggested in talks this week with Beijing's leaders that their recent saber-rattling toward Taiwan could trigger stepped-up US arms sales to the island and endanger passage of a bilateral trade bill.
Two days of meetings between US National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and senior Chinese officials focused on two different American goals: The US aims to both maintain smooth ties with Communist-ruled China and to provide weapons to democratic Taiwan to defend against a Chinese attack.
That conflict was downplayed in the Chinese state-controlled news media, which have largely described Mr. Berger's meetings with President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji as the bringing of US olive branches.
But Berger also carried a symbolic sheath of potential spears, says a senior US administration official who asked not to be identified.
When the Chinese demanded that Washington cut off all weapons supplies to Taiwan, Berger hinted that arms sales might rise in proportion to "the level of threat across the Taiwan Strait," says the official.
Berger, one of President Clinton's top policymakers on China, also told Beijing "It is a political reality that, with tension across the Taiwan Strait, it will be more difficult to secure passage of PNTR," the official adds.
The US Congress is gearing up to vote on PNTR - permanent normal trade relations with China. The trade status, which the US is obligated to grant under a WTO pact reached last year, faces opposition by a coalition of US human rights activists, labor unions, and Congressmembers who see Beijing as a potential military threat or predict that more US jobs will go to China.
Berger's double-barreled message to Beijing was to tone down its belligerent rhetoric and to instead seek peace talks with Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province.
Last month, China issued a policy paper that ratcheted up its military threats to Taiwan ahead of its March 18 presidential election, by stating that it might launch an attack if the island indefinitely delayed talks on reunification. The election resulted in the defeat of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bian, whose group has historically called for independence.
The KMT ruled Taiwan ever since fleeing to the island after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists in 1949. Since then, Beijing has vowed to reunify the two sides of the Taiwan Strait through war or negotiations.
Although its fury was focused on president-elect Chen before the presidential poll, after Mr. Chen's victory, China said it would monitor the new leader's actions before deciding on a cross-strait policy.
Chen said repeatedly during his campaign that he would only seek Taiwan's formal independence if attacked by China, and since his win he has offered to undertake a mission of peace to the mainland.
"Before he got power, people couldn't be sure whether Chen Shui-bian would stick to his commitments on not declaring independence," says a top adviser to Chen. "Therefore Chen wants to adopt a very moderate stance that promotes reconciliation," he adds. The adviser says Chen wants to quickly open direct channels of trade and communication with Beijing, and invite "more mainland Chinese people to come to Taiwan to do business."
At the same time, Chen wants to make it clear that the flowering of democracy on the island means that "the issue of reunification can only be decided by all the people of Taiwan - not by a small group of people in Beijing." Most Taiwanese say that they favor maintaining Taiwan's murky international status if a declaration of independence would spark a war with China, but it remains unclear how long Beijing will tolerate the island's de facto autonomy.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society