Did We Send Mixed Signals To China On Taiwan?

According to Congressional Quarterly’s Jeff Stein, the Department of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld may have aggravated China’s paranoia over Taiwan by deliberately undermining the long-standing US policy on relations between the two. Colin Powell’s chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, claims that the Pentagon encouraged Taiwan to declare independence against the policy of the Bush administration — a move that would have touched off a military confrontation with Beijing (via Memeorandum):

The same top Bush administration neoconservatives who leap-frogged Washington’s foreign policy establishment to topple Saddam Hussein nearly pulled off a similar coup in U.S.-China relations—creating the potential of a nuclear war over Taiwan, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell says.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the U.S. Army colonel who was Powell’s chief of staff through two administrations, said in little-noted remarks early last month that “neocons” in the top rungs of the administration quietly encouraged Taiwanese politicians to move toward a declaration of independence from mainland China — an act that the communist regime has repeatedly warned would provoke a military strike.
The top U.S. diplomat in Taiwan at the time, Douglas Paal, backs up Wilkerson’s account, which is being hotly disputed by key former defense officials.

During the Nixon effort to “open up” Red China, the US agreed to a formulation which recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. In return, China agreed to consider Taiwan an autonomous entity outside of its direct control. The US guaranteed Taiwan’s security as long as the status quo remained.
Three years ago, however, Taiwan began making noises about declaring independence. During most of 2004, a crisis mentality prevailed after an assassination attempt on President Chen Shui-bian and VP Annette Lu failed in March of that year. Many blamed China, as Chen had been talking up independence. Only after the failure of Chen’s party to hold the parliament in December did tempers cool.
Wilkerson accuses Therese Shaheen of manipulating Chen into pushing for independence. Shaheen ran the American Institute in Taipei at the time, which took over the diplomatic functions of the embassy after the US closed it in 1979. Shaheen openly endorsed Chen, and since Shaheen is the wife of Lawrence DiRita, a close aid of Donald Rumsfeld, the Chinese took that endorsement as an official position change for the US — and began acting accordingly.
Stein notes that the people Wilkerson accuses of this shadow diplomacy all deny it in very strong terms. Douglas Feith says that the accusations are too fuzzy to refute in detail, but that the “remarks are not even close to being accurate.” DiRita calls them “completely ridiculous … absurd.” However, Shaheen worked for Douglas Paal at the Institute, and Paal corroborates Wilkerson’s account. In the end, the White House put its foot down and stamped out the effort, according to both men.
The sudden crisis of 2004 in Taiwan has always seemed odd. Wilkerson’s story could explain why Taiwan changed course so abruptly and pushed for a challenge to Beijing so openly. If so, then it calls into question the judgment of some DoD officials, especially considering the fact that we already have a war on our hands against radical Islamist terrorists, in and out of Iraq. We hardly needed to provoke a military engagement over Taiwan.

23 thoughts on “Did We Send Mixed Signals To China On Taiwan?”

  1. Is Wilkerson really that reliable a source? If I recall, he has made other accusations against Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, and he does appear to be part of Powell’s clique. I would urge a Hitchens-like suspicion of this man’s motives.

  2. Concur with Joe Foy. Wilkerson has long been one of the lead bomb throwers of the anti-Rumsfeld crew.

  3. A third likely option is that Rumsfeld and Co. urged them to threaten to declare independence, without actually creating a breach, to force the PRC to publicly commit to either diplomacy or militarization.

  4. Captain,
    Taiwan and North Korea are two sides of the same puzzle IMHO. Do we want NC on the plate (meaning unification with full enchilada)? Just give up Taiwan.
    One other thing, in just a few years we won’t be able to defend Taiwan anyway, with most of our high tech, and manufacturing (except for the very top end) transfered already to China they will be able to overwhelm our Navy defenses by sheer numbers of slightly inferior, but vastly larger number of planes and missiles. We’ll lose one or two aircraft carriers, go into deep national shock and Taiwan will be gone in 2 weeks. Unless we’ll go nuclear, but paper tigers don’t do it.
    Sorry, had to vent…

  5. silly politics – Taiwan has been independent since 1949 – Chinese know this, Taiwan knows this and the US knows this.
    this silly “One-China” bullshit is simply a pride-face saving policy that makes China feel good.
    Too late now though – our Chamberlain policy toward China (namely this awful “One China” crap) – gave China the green light to take Taiwan YEARS ago.
    We SHOULD have ended the “One China” back in 1989 with the Tainamin Square killings – to send a clear message. Had we done that nearly 20-yrs ago, Taiwan would have formally declaired independance by the early 90’s and China would have to just lump it.
    But NO! the US has been too busy appeasing the Chinese assholes to actually get tough with them – and know they are too powerful to manage and Taiwan is litterally living on barrowed time!!
    Our TRUE national threat – and we play Chamberlain with the SOBs for 20 yrs!
    We will get what we deserve – when we place $$ above sould National Security policy.
    “most favored nation” my arse.

  6. Assuming that there is ANY truth to what Wilkerson says about his most hated enemies: patriotic Americans who had the gaul to disagree with Saint Colin, it is likely to be as “The Yell” describes it. In short it is exactly the sort of thing you’d EXPECT Wilkerson to lie about the details of in order to smear somebody.
    As for North Korea and Taiwan being two sides of the same puzzle as “TomB” writes, well, yes, but not in the way he means.
    First, in the 21st Century I think we can finally do without the thoroughly discredited “Realist” attitude that casually condemns millions to tyranny like it is all some sort of “game”. Leaving aside for the moment what is “practical”, the only HONORABLE goal of US foreign policy is to KEEP Taiwan free while doing everything reasonable see the people of North Korea AND Mainland China achieve the same goal eventually. Anything less is not ‘Realist”; it is “Shameful”.
    Where North Korea and Taiwan ARE two sides of the same puzzle is in the area of nuclear weapons. I have always thought that this crisis has a relatively EASY diplomatic solution, not with North Korea, which is a (necessary) waste of time, but rather behind the scenes with China.
    Hopefully, we have been telling China all along that at some point our regional allies are going to give up on diplomacy and start building nukes themselves. First will be Japan of course, but sooner rather than later, Japan will be followed by South Korea AND Taiwan, and the United States will HELP them.
    So in the end it is up to China.
    Either North Korea will give up its nukes, or EVERYONE in the region will develop nukes.
    Choose, China.

  7. As has been said, it sounds like alot of bomb throwing by Wilkerson. Anyone who’s a caddie for Powell against the “neocons” deserves alot of suspicion. To boot, he doesn’t have anything that actually proves his side, other than him saying “nyah nyah”.
    He’s just probably annoyed that the Bush admin, in general, chose to ally with Taiwan rather than China. Personally, I don’t blame the Bush admin- China spent 2001-2004 burning their bridges with US, and deserved no love.
    Plus, it helps to always look into the local situation first, before proscribing actions to the larger powers. In Wilkerson’s world, the Taiwanese are just pathetic pawns that can’t lace their own shoelaces unless the US (or China) does it for them. That kind of paternalistic attitude isn’t helpful, and does far more damage than not.

  8. “the only HONORABLE goal of US foreign policy is to KEEP Taiwan free”
    Indeed. And to whit it is so fortunate that we were not guided so early in our national compass by such dishonorable sorts and fakirs as I forthwith quote:
    “It is our true policy to steer clear of entangling alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” — George Washington
    “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” — Thomas Jefferson
    “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” — Benjamin Franklin
    “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” — John Quincy Adams
    Dreadful cowards…

  9. The ‘one China’ policy isn’t just a feel good policy for the Chinese – they really believe it. Most Chinese that I’ve talked to, even ones from Hong Kong, truly consider Taiwan to be part of China and are convinced that it must be unified with the rest of China. The more realistic ones concede that this may not happen in their lifetime, but many others are convinced that it must happen in the next decade or two and will require force. It’s irrational, but nationalism and ethnic unity are often not subject to rational considerations.

  10. [China] will be able to overwhelm our Navy defenses by sheer numbers of slightly inferior, but vastly larger number of planes and missiles.


    TomB, It won’t get that far since China can now shut down the American retail sector any time it wants to.

  11. Geistmaus, spare us the deliberate misuse of older foreign policy views that while quite honorable and sensible for the leaders of a tiny newly freed colony in a world dominated by European imperialists would be and ARE dishonorable and cowardly when voiced by the leaders or would-be leaders of the world’s only hyperpower.
    Being the “World’s Policeman” is a dirty and thankless job, but if we refuse it, the job won’t get done, and we WILL be to blame for the consequences.

  12. I’ll assume that those who insinuate that questioning Wilerson’s credibility is sufficient to dismiss the allegations also don’t see fit to question the credibiilty of Feith and DiRita. I’ll then conclude that some people who presumably pay close attention haven’t learned a damn thing these past six years.

  13. I agree with Stowaway. General Tommy Franks said”Doug Feith is the dumbest SOB I’ve ever met.”The Bush foreign policy is by far the worst in our countrys history.

  14. Having grown up in Taiwan as an American, I can safely say the issues are complex. A large number of Chinese in Taiwan are not for independence. A large number of Taiwanese are.
    The Taiwan government knows that they got as far as they have because of US protection. However, as China grows in strength, both militarily and economically, they know they don’t have a snowball’s chance in “you know where” with independence.
    The Kou Ming Tang will regain the presidency in the next elections and you will see a much more conciliatory attitude toward China. In time, I believe we will see a more formal autonomous agreement between the two entities that will give Taiwan more freedom than Hong Kong has, but will satisfy China that Taiwan will not bolt.

  15. So you think the Taiwanese will surrender their Nation to China without a shot?
    Would the US do the same for England?
    I wonder.

  16. joe, that Franks quote comes from Woodward’s Plan of Attack. I wouldn’t be so sure to stick with anything quoted in Woodward’s works. He lionizes those that give him info and access and he bitches and demonizes those that don’t, or he doesn’t want to talk to. And considering that Powell was his major source for the last two books he’s written on the Bush admin, I see him as a very suspect source of info for anything.
    Plus, he tends to also get quotes and info wrong, just as much as Tenet does. Woodward, in the end, will be viewed as nothing more than a middle man hatchet boy for people who have axes to grind.

  17. Gaffo,
    Taiwan has been within China’s sphere of influence since the Ming dynasty (a hundred years before our own revolution). The Taiwanese are mostly Chinese descendants. If China wasn’t a communist country, Taiwan would be integrated into China as a province today.
    Right now, the Taiwan economy is so tightly tied to China that it really doesn’t have much wiggle room. The Taiwan independence movement gathered steam after a split in the Kou Ming Tang party that allowed Chen to win the presidency. That will be rectified in the next presidential elections, since the KMT is no longer split.
    Everything the US has done to Taiwan in the last fifty years has probably convinced most of the people there that their future is not with the US.
    The US dumped The Nationalist government out of the UN in 1972 (Thanks Nixon). They withdrew all political recognition from Taiwan in 1979 (Thanks Carter). The last twenty years has been a rollercoaster of support from the US. Their elected leaders cannot even show up in the US without the US government falling all over itself to convince China it is not a political visit.
    The Chinese who live in Taiwan see themselves as Chinese. Many Taiwanese see themselves as Chinese. They live, work, and play within China’s sphere of influence, not ours. They will work out whatever deal possible with China that keeps themselves free. If that means assuring China they are a Chinese province and not an independent nation, they will.
    However, if China attempts to force communism on them, they will fight.

  18. Bush administration neoconservatives who leap-frogged Washington’s foreign policy establishment
    Imbecile author.

  19. China and Taiwan will, IMO, eventually reunite.
    The nice way for this to happen would be diplomatically. As long as Taiwan doesn’t declare independence from China, the PRC will keep trying to convince Taiwan to rejoin the mainland.
    If Taiwan declares independence, China will feel the need to fight. I think we’re committed to preventing reunification by force. That would be bad for everyone.
    As for “China can now shut down the American retail sector any time it wants to”, PFP you need to finish that sentence. It ends with “anytime it wants to face economic collapse and civil strife.” Economic growth is what keeps this place relatively calm. Cut off the prosperity, and there will be blood in the scuppers.

  20. Lai – you seem well informed, and said this:
    “Gaffo,
    Taiwan has been within China’s sphere of influence since the Ming dynasty (a hundred years before our own revolution).”
    Now wait a minute, china has not been unified for centuries – in the 19th century we had British and US colonies there, and in the 1920-40 Japan occupied alot of China and all of Formosa. The rest of China was rulled by many war-lords such as Shang Ki shek.
    “The Taiwanese are mostly Chinese descendants.”
    Mostly? do they outnumber the native population?
    “If China wasn’t a communist country, Taiwan would be integrated into China as a province today.”
    Do you believe that? Taiwan is the product of the losing side of the Chinese Civil War. Why would the Nationalist Government (i.e. Taiwan) commit suicide and re-join China’s government. I think the fact that they had a civil war and are from opposing sides has alot more to do with the separation than “communism” of the other side. Its not like Taiwan was a beacon of Democracy from the 50-80’s.
    “Right now, the Taiwan economy is so tightly tied to China that it really doesn’t have much wiggle room.”
    precisely – they cut their own throat. should have built ties to Japan/South Korea instead.
    “The Taiwan independence movement gathered steam after a split in the Kou Ming Tang party that allowed Chen to win the presidency. That will be rectified in the next presidential elections, since the KMT is no longer split.”
    Taiwan should have declaired in the 70’s or 80’s. too late now.
    “Everything the US has done to Taiwan in the last fifty years has probably convinced most of the people there that their future is not with the US.
    The US dumped The Nationalist government out of the UN in 1972 (Thanks Nixon). They withdrew all political recognition from Taiwan in 1979 (Thanks Carter). The last twenty years has been a rollercoaster of support from the US. Their elected leaders cannot even show up in the US without the US government falling all over itself to convince China it is not a political visit.”
    Exactly!
    “The Chinese who live in Taiwan see themselves as Chinese.”
    Why? they’ve had 60 yrs to create a new identity. thats what the losing side usually does.
    “Many Taiwanese see themselves as Chinese.”
    seems terribly naive to me if this is so. Chinese government has been openly hostile for 30 yrs now. Do mainlanders see Taiwanese as Chinese or as apostates-outcasts-upstarts.
    “They live, work, and play within China’s sphere of influence, not ours”
    Then I fear they are doomed to be invaded.
    “They will work out whatever deal possible with China that keeps themselves free. ”
    I don’t see China making any deals. They are like the pre-ww2 Germany. A fascist Capitalist Nationalist bully, and will take what they can by force.
    “If that means assuring China they are a Chinese province and not an independent nation, they will.”
    good luck!!
    “However, if China attempts to force communism on them, they will fight.”
    Communism is dead – but it makes nice phlosophical cover for shear arrogant Nationalism.
    What do the non-Chinese Tawianese think of this whole mess – and what percentage to the indiginous make up?
    thanks for the informed post!

  21. Wow, truly a disaster in foreign policy…people complained about Pelosi sending mixed signals but for it to come out of the WH itself? Yikes.

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