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Published: Friday, 5/4/2001

Mixed signals on China

The Bush administration is clearly taking more of a hard line toward China than the previous administration, but at what expense and why now - of all times? It almost appears the Bush White House is deliberately trying to provoke Beijing into attack mode by throwing it a policy curve every few days.

The Pentagon did it again by announcing a suspension of military-to-military contacts with China, only to reverse itself hours later, saying no suspension was planned. The reversal, which would only have strained relations with the Chinese further, was blamed on “an honest misinterpretation” of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's intentions.

Odd. Either contacts are suspended or not, what's to misinterpret? And why tip the plan of the Pentagon ordering the armed services to suspend all “programs, contacts, and activities” with the Chinese military on the same day U.S. contractors were allowed to inspect the downed Navy spy plane on China's Hainan Island?

Does the right hand not know what the left is doing on the Bush administration's foreign policy team?

The commander in chief is no help either. Were his heat-generating remarks on Taiwan intentional or did the man misspeak - as they say in Washington? If Mr. Bush's initial comments on defending Taiwan with “whatever it took” - including the use of U.S. military forces - were indeed premeditated, be afraid.

If the President misspoke about committing the country's military to Taiwan to thwart an attack by China, be likewise afraid. The problem is it remains unclear exactly what the President meant to do. He made a longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” about U.S. intentions to go to war with China over Taiwan more ambiguous.

Mixed signals or not, Beijing believed its worst suspicions were being confirmed that Washington was never serious about its “one-China” policy that rejected an independent Taiwan.

In the span of a day, Mr. Bush and his defense secretary managed to stoke controversies that didn't need stoking. They simply added to the tensions with China already compounded by another U.S. arms package to Taiwan and the collision of the U.S. surveillance plane with a Chinese fighter jet. What is going on?

Are the old Cold War cadre of advisers in the Bush administration so desperate to resurrect another “evil empire” they've seized a not-so-subtle strategy to egg on an emerging world superpower?

Perhaps the President, not overly adept at the many nuances of the China policy, inadvertently wandered into details thoroughly foreign to him under the pressure of a television interview. But what is the Pentagon's excuse?

Washington's relations with Beijing have been pushed to the breaking point in a matter of months. The Bush administration's clumsy snafus or calculated strategies are truly cause for concern.

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