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.