The interview was aired on "Good Morning America" Wednesday, and indeed it set in motion a major story: Bush had just abandoned a long-standing White House policy of official ambiguity with regard to the defense of Taiwan.
Asked if the United States would come to Taiwan's aid if China attacked, Bush said it would.
``Yes, we do ... and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would,'' Bush said. Pressed for details on what that meant militarily, he said, ``Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend theirself.''
Key military officials expressed shock and surprise at the president's comments Tuesday night, according to U.S. officials, and said they hoped the White House would tone down its statements.
Indeed, the White House was been soft-pedaling the issue Wednesday, arguing it is not a departure from policy and that Bush said much the same thing in his presidential debate in March.
"Bush has been walking back from it," an official said.
However, actions may speak louder than words. He noted that Bush's announcement that he would sell Taiwan eight diesel submarines, an offensive military capability, seems to be an indication that the White House is changing its policy toward giving Taiwan extra military support.
The United States diplomatically recognized the People's Republic of China in 1979 as the sole legal government of China and acknowledged the Chinese position that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is part of China. It has made it clear, however, that it would support reunification only by peaceful means.
It has not been said precisely what the United States would do to ensure peaceful means. A veiled threat of military support for Taiwan against China force has remained just that - veiled.
"I don't think a president has ever been this specific about what the defense of Taiwan would include. He has just said it: whatever it takes," a U.S. official said told United Press International.
America's "strategic ambiguity" has been a hallmark of its relations with China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province.
"The ambiguity is in there to give us more flexibility and not paint anyone into a box. Well, the box is painted, and they've removed the wet paint sign," said a U.S. official.
Another official pointed out that while publicly the United States has played coy on its military commitment to Taiwan, China has always understood that the United States would come to Taiwan's aid if it were attacked.
Bush "is just comfortable articulating closer to where the truth is," the official said.
Despite the comments, the official said the United States was no more committed to defending Taiwan than it was before.
"People will always make their decision depending on the circumstances," he said.
But Pentagon officials point out that there have always been military plans for the defense of Taiwan, and those will not be changed in light of Bush's statements.
"It's not something they talk about in any kind of detail, but it will be no change in what they've got on the books," the official said.
What happens next is largely dependent on Taiwan and China, officials said.
"It's a tough go, and depends how people in Asia react to this," one official said. "This does box them in to some extent, in so far as Taiwan may take some advantage of this."
Taiwan could attempt to exploit Bush's proclaimed military support by pressing the case for statehood, and China could feed this to a growing list of perceived slights at the hands of the Bush administration - the Chinese fighter's collision with a U.S. reconnaissance plane, the major arms package being offered to Taiwan and now this.
A government official suggested it could be another month before China took any action as it was waiting for final approval for permanent normal trade status with the United States.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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