One China? Two Headaches: The Bush Administration Has Danced with Both China and Taiwan. but a Taiwanese Referendum Set for March 20 Will Force It to Choose Sides

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BACKING BOTH THE FAVORITE AND THE underdog in a boxing match might win points for evenhandedness, but it would leave sports fans scratching their heads. In the battle of affections between China and Taiwan, though, the Bush administration has done just that.

Both countries have been led to believe that they are enjoying the best relations with Washington in years. While this win-win stratagem stands in sharp contrast to the administration's divide-and-rule policies else where in the world, it also contradicts a key element of George W. Bush's foreign policy--the promotion of democracy--and has irked some Bush supporters who are China critics. With presidential elections coming up in both Taiwan and the United States, the administration is now under pressure to take sides.

Four years ago, Bush sang a different tune. As a presidential candidate, he rebuked the Clinton administration for being too soft on Beijing. But when a candidate becomes president, he soon comes to understand that 1.3 billion Chinese are not easily ignored. China's huge and growing economy has U.S. businesses slavering.

Bush has acted accordingly. Although China's downing of an EP-3 spy plane in April 2001 heightened tensions, the Bush administration's reaction was restrained. After September 11, the love fest really took off. China signed on to the war on terrorism, pressured North Korea to negotiate, and downplayed its criticism of the Iraq War. Bush held several high-profile meetings with Chinese leaders that cemented the new relations, culminating in the inclusion of one of Beijing's bugbears, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, on the U.S. State Department's terrorism list.

Had Bill Clinton cozied up to Beijing in this way, his critics would have gone ballistic. Yet the so-called China bashers have largely muted their criticism of Bush. There was little outcry over the administration's failure to censure China before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in March 2003, the first time the United States has failed to do so in five years. The spy scandal involving Republican Party fund-raiser Katrina Leung, unlike the trumped-up case against Wen Ho Lee or Clinton's alleged links to Chinese campaign contributions, quickly disappeared from the news.

This is no mere partisan politics. The severest critics of China have pulled their punches because the Bush administration continues to back containment of Beijing's military ambitions and is pressuring the European Union not to lift its own arms embargo on China. More importantly to the anti-China bloc, Bush--at least initially--fulfilled his promise to beef up relations with Taiwan. A multibillion-dollar arms deal struck in April 2001 will provide Taiwan with U.S. submarines for the first time. Taiwanese officials visiting the United States, including President Chen Shui-bian in November 2003, have enjoyed greater freedom of movement and access to U.S. officials (although Chen is still not allowed to come to Washington--that would push Beijing over the edge). Joyce Shieh, head of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, notes approvingly that "doing is more important than saying it loudly." George W. Bush is the "secret guardian angel" of Taiwan, according to Therese Shaheen of the American Institute in Taiwan.

Taiwan has upset this delicate balance, however, by pulling a California. Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have called a public referendum to coincide with Taiwan's presidential elections on March 20. Encouraged by warmer relations with Washington, the DPP is hoping to appeal directly to the electorate and thus bypass a parliament narrowly controlled by factions of the former ruling Nationalist Party, which are reluctant to rile China. In the referendum, the DPP is expected to ask voters whether they support a military upgrade and/or the pursuit of talks with Beijing on equal footing. The party wants to counter China's enhanced missile capabilities but has faced opposition within the old guard of the Taiwanese military as to the high price of U. …