Washington — President Bush has delighted Taiwan, infuriated China and puzzled those who follow the region by announcing plans to sell Taiwan new weapons and pledging to come to its defense.
"We do look at this new government with a very positive perspective," Taiwan's top diplomat in Washington, C.J. Chen, told American reporters last week. The veteran diplomat kept his enthusiasm within bounds, mindful that U.S. relations with Taiwan ebb and flow as they do with China, as well.
The good week for Taiwan topped off a bad month for U.S.-Chinese relations, starting with the collision of a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter plane over the South China Sea on April 1 and ending with the Bush administration's seeming tilt toward Taiwan.
Tuesday, the administration approved the sale to Taiwan of four Kidd-class destroyers, up to eight diesel submarines, and 12 P-3 Orion submarine-killer aircraft.
Wednesday, Bush followed that up with what many regarded as an unusually strong commitment to Taiwan's defense. China considers Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out retaking it by force.
In an interview with ABC, Bush was asked whether the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan if the island were attacked by China. "Yes we do ... and the Chinese must understand that," Bush responded.
Did that mean the "full force of American military?" "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," Bush replied.
The comments seemed to be a departure from the historic U.S. position of maintaining open options on the issue of Taiwan's defense. The theory, known as "strategic ambiguity, is that uncertainty about a U.S. response deters both Chinese aggression against Taiwan and Taiwanese provocations against the mainland.
The comments enraged China.
"There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is part of China. It is not a protectorate of any foreign country," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue."
To Dana Dillon of the Heritage Foundation, Bush's statement was a breakthrough for Taiwan because it replaces strategic ambiguity with "strategic clarity."
"Certainly he said what has not been said before," Dillon said. "It's been a good week for peace in the Taiwan Straits."
It is unusual for a president to announce policy changes on sensitive issues during a television interview.
Winston Lord, a U.S. ambassador to China during the Reagan administration, said Bush's remarks were new, but thought the president was winging it.
"Maybe the president should have been better briefed," Lord said.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in a CNN interview Friday night, defended the more assertive tone on China by saying China is not as committed to peace with Taiwan as it used to be.
He cited Beijing's buildup of missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Cheney also blamed China for the April 1 aerial collision. He said it was evidence of a "much more aggressive" treatment of U.S. surveillance aircraft off China's coast.