IT WAS A SAD SPECTACLE: Sitting next to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, visiting emissary from the world's largest dictatorship, President Bush last week performed a kowtow that would have made Bill Clinton blush. Following a script dictated by Beijing, and translated into English by senior national security council official James Moriarty, the president condemned Taiwan's popularly elected president for certain unspecified "comments and actions" indicating a desire for Taiwan's independence. Moriarty then proceeded to tell reporters "on background" that what the president really meant was that he opposed Taiwan's plans to hold a referendum this coming March. The Chinese premier professed himself delighted by the administration's condemnation of Taiwan and opposition to a referendum, reminded everyone that China still reserves the right to use military force against Taiwan in the event of any "provocations," and traveled back to China gloating about the American president's gift to Beijing. Not so long ago, President Bush described China's heavily armed tyranny as a "strategic competitor" of the United States. Now the administration is soft as marshmallows, so eager to please that it endangers a democratic ally's fundamental security--and our own credibility and leadership in East Asia.

Last week's misstep on Taiwan is dangerous. Fortunately, there is time to undo much of the damage.

The facts in the Taiwan case are straightforward enough. Over the past few years, China has been building a vast arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles across the strait from Taiwan. At present some 496 of these missiles are ready to be launched at a moment's notice against the Taiwanese people. Chinese leaders, both military and "civilian," have repeatedly, and quite recently, warned that China is willing to use force if necessary to make Taiwan surrender its sovereignty and accept Beijing's rule. The Pentagon, both under this and the previous administration, has reported that Beijing's ability to launch a successful attack on Taiwan is increasing rapidly, while Taiwan's ability to defend itself is decreasing--and the ability of the United States effectively to intervene may be decreasing as well.

Now, in response to this alarming situation, Taiwan's President Chen is proposing to hold what he calls a "defensive referendum" in March on the question of Beijing's missiles. He is hoping, and with good reason, that the Taiwanese people will vote overwhelmingly to demand that China remove these missiles and commit to a peaceful resolution of the cross-straits issue. Chen's critics in the Bush National Security Council claim that Chen is playing politics with the issue in his reelection campaign. And indeed, Chen does hope that his public position regarding China's missile threat will serve him well in the March elections--a bit the way President Bush hopes his position regarding the war on terrorism will help him next November. In both cases, the point is that the two presidents expect to be rewarded politically for faithfully expressing the majority view in their countries. And in neither case does the fact that the policy is politically popular make it illegitimate.

The problem for Chen, however, is that the Chinese government has always hated the idea of a referendum in Taiwan--any referendum on any subject. For one thing, Beijing's dictators don't like expressions of democracy, either in territories they control, like Hong Kong, or in countries they want to control, like Taiwan. Beijing also fears that the more the Taiwanese people have a chance to express their views freely, the more likely that someday they will express the view that they want to be truly and officially independent. So China wants to squelch democratic expression in Taiwan as much as possible. And now, unbelievably, so do some senior officials in the Bush administration. In his background interviews with the press, Moriarty told reporters that the administration opposes any referendum on any topic. But Bush has never made such a statement, nor has any administration official in a public setting.

That is the silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud. Despite its disagreeable kowtow last week, the Bush administration can still maintain--and needs to insist--that it has not changed longstanding American policy toward Taiwan. After all, the president simply repeated old American warnings against Taiwan's changing the "status quo" regarding its sovereignty. But President Chen has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of taking such steps. In his inaugural address in May 2000, President Chen declared that as long as China "has no intention to use military force against Taiwan, I pledge that during my term in office, I will not declare independence, I will not change the national title, I will not push for the inclusion of the so-called 'state-to-state' description in the Constitution, and I will not promote a referendum to change the status quo in regards to the question of independence or unification." President Chen is abiding by that pledge. His proposed referendum has nothing to do with the issue of independence. It therefore does not run afoul of President Bush's admonition.

So there is a way out of this mess. President Chen will officially announce that the subject of the March referendum will indeed be China's missiles and not independence. The Bush administration should then make it clear, publicly, that it has no objection to the Taiwanese people's exercising their democratic right to hold a referendum on such a question. It should at the same time make clear the American view that China has no right to undertake or threaten military action in response to the referendum, and the American commitment to respond appropriately if China engages in any such threats--that we would "do whatever it took" to defend the Taiwanese democracy, to quote the president from a couple of years ago.

This is the right course for two reasons: First, it honors rather than betrays President Bush's commitment to support democracy and democratic practices around the world. Second, it deters the Chinese from believing they can get away with military intimidation this coming spring or in the future. For that is the great risk that Moriarty's policy has created. If China believes the United States opposes Taiwan's referendum, then Beijing's leaders may also believe that Bush will stand by and do nothing if they threaten or take military action. Other nations in Asia--and around the world--are also watching. Does it increase confidence in U.S. strength and leadership if they see China succeeding in pushing the United States around because Beijing doesn't like a democratic referendum nearby?

We believe that in fact Bush will not stand by and let China fire missiles at or near Taiwan this spring. But the present policy risks encouraging such a miscalculation by Beijing, and thus makes a crisis more likely. To avert such a crisis, the president needs to revert to his core principles and make clear that the United States supports the Taiwanese democracy. Here, as so often, prudence and honor offer the same counsel.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol

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