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Thursday, 26 April, 2001, 22:23 GMT 23:23 UK
US press criticism
US Navy P-3C Orion aircraft
US aircraft would be part of the deal with Taiwan
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

The US press reacted with confusion and mild criticism as President George W Bush appeared to announce a major shift in policy with respect to Taiwan.

Aides cast Mr Bush's statement as a 'rebalancing' of American policy with respect to Taiwan and China

The press scrambled as the president appeared to commit the US military to direct defence of Taiwan in the event of an attack from China.

However, as the day progressed, the president appeared to back off any promise to directly commit US troops to Taiwan's defence as members of the administration repeatedly said that there was no change in US policy.

The press, which had been praising Mr Bush for his recent decision on arms sales to Taiwan, criticised the president for sending mixed messages at a time of delicate relations with China.

Stop the presses

Reminiscent of the flip-flops last November on election night, the US press found itself rewriting headlines as Mr Bush appeared to mark a dramatic shift in foreign policy when it appeared that he had committed the US military to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China.

The shift appeared to come as Mr Bush said in an interview with ABC News that the US would "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan.

Chinese paramilitary guard
US relations with China are delicate
This was a departure from the United States' decades-old policy of "strategic ambiguity" in which the US kept both Taiwan and China guessing about the extent of its commitment to the island's defence.

China refers to Taiwan as a renegade province and is committed to reuniting it with the mainland.

Although the US has obligated itself to defend Taiwan, previous administrations have been careful not to encourage Taiwan to press for independence and have supported a so-called "One China" policy.

However, just as the US press was rushing to announce a major shift in US foreign policy, Mr Bush appeared to backtrack, reiterating support for the "One China" policy and saying that the US would defend the island in the event it declared independence.

Rebalancing of relationship

The Washington press corps is still parsing the president's statements and trying to guess and second-guess what Mr Bush meant.

In an online interview, Time magazine's State Department correspondent Jay Branegan was asked: "But isn't this just a case of a president not known for his precise choice of words inadvertently sending out a message?

"Did the president simply speak too casually about something that required a lot more cautious and nuanced phraseology, or is this a deliberate change in policy."

George W Bush
Mr Bush wishes to take a more sceptical stance towards China
Mr Bush has been clear from statements not only recently but during his campaign that he wished to take a more sceptical stance towards China.

During the campaign, he said that he viewed China as a "strategic competitor," which marked a shift from the Clinton administration's policy towards the Asian giant.

And aides cast Mr Bush's statement as a "rebalancing" of American policy with respect to Taiwan and China.

But Mr Branegan said that it was difficult to know, based on his comments on Wednesday, how far he is going with this rebalancing effort.

"And the reason it's hard to know how far he really intended to change things is because a number of his advisers, including Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, had been outspoken in recent years," said Mr Branegan.

"They had suggested that the previous strategic ambiguity had lost its usefulness because of changed attitudes on the mainland and in Taiwan, and that the US therefore needed to make a more clear statement that it would come to Taiwan's aid in the event of an attack."

'Unfortunate slip'

The confusion caused some in the press to criticise Mr Bush for muddying the situation with respect to Taiwan and China during a delicate period in Sino-US relations.

The Washington Post said that by the end of the day Mr Bush appeared not to have intended a major shift in US policy, but rather "may just have slipped from the ritualistic formula to which U.S. leaders have carefully confined themselves for the past two decades."

Chinese soldiers
China refers to Taiwan as a renegade province
"If so, it was an unfortunate slip. His statements yesterday left US policy toward Taiwan and China less rather than more clear," the newspaper said.

However, the newspaper said that the administration has many good reasons "to consider a more explicit commitment to Taiwan's defence."

It cited Taiwan's increasing commitment to democracy and a military build up on the mainland.

It said that Mr Bush was right to respond to China's growing threat to Taiwan with a recent commitment to sell the island nation a new package of weapons, and that the administration could have contributed to increased stability in the region with a carefully prepared statement.

However, the newspaper said: "Mr Bush's statement" or rather, series of statements in various interviews during the day "appeared to lack that care or context".

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See also:

26 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
China hits back at Bush
26 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Taiwan's Lee postpones US trip
25 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Bush talks tough over Taiwan
26 Apr 01 | Europe
Taiwan sub deal under threat
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