Campaigning for the presidency in 1992, Bill Clinton accused his incumbent rival, George Bush, of coddling dictators in China and sending "secret emissaries to raise a toast with those who crushed democracy" in Tiananmen Square. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
George W. Bush, son of the former president and front-runner for the GOP nomination next year, has reopened the China issue with a blast at Clinton. In a television interview last weekend, he said Clinton "made a mistake [in] calling China a strategic partner" and "sent bad signals" to Beijing about U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
"We need to be tough and firm" in the face of Chinese threats to use force if necessary to prevent Taiwan from declaring itself independent, Bush said on the CNN talk show "Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields." He said China should be viewed as a "strategic competitor," not a "strategic partner."
Asked whether protecting Taiwan might require the use of U.S. troops if China attacked, Bush said, "It could. We need to honor our commitments in the Far East."
In a news conference here yesterday, Chinese Ambassador Li Zhaoxing upbraided unspecified "American politicians" who talk about defending Taiwan against China.
"We believe this is a very dangerous statement," Li said. "Taiwan is part of China. Taiwan is not Florida, Hawaii or Guam. The issue of Taiwan is entirely China's internal matter, brooking no foreign intervention." While he broke no new ground, Li made clear that his government remains highly agitated about a recent statement by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui that future relations between the mainland and the island should be conducted on a "state-to-state" basis.
China considers Taiwan part of China--a position accepted by the United States--and is committed to eventual reunion.
Ambassador Li said Lee's statement was motivated by a desire to poison relations between Beijing and Washington. "Knowing that his days of leadership in Taiwan are numbered, Lee Teng-hui wracks his brains to try to stick to his eroding position so that he can continue to push the Taiwan independence movement," Li said. "And he also wants to destroy the pretty good and stable relations between two good countries, China and America."
Clinton is scheduled to meet Chinese President Jiang Zemin in New Zealand in September as the two countries continue their efforts to restore cordial relations, severely damaged by the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the air war against Yugoslavia.
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin declined to respond directly to Bush's comments or Li's criticism.
"I am confident that the Chinese understand our political process, having worked with this country through several different administrations that have changed," he said.