CQ HOMELAND SECURITY – SpyTalk
Defense Officials Tried to Reverse China Policy, Says Powell Aide

The same top Bush administration neoconservatives who leap-frogged Washington’s foreign policy establishment to topple Saddam Hussein nearly pulled off a similar coup in U.S.-China relations—creating the potential of a nuclear war over Taiwan, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell says.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the U.S. Army colonel who was Powell’s chief of staff through two administrations, said in little-noted remarks early last month that “neocons” in the top rungs of the administration quietly encouraged Taiwanese politicians to move toward a declaration of independence from mainland China — an act that the communist regime has repeatedly warned would provoke a military strike.

The top U.S. diplomat in Taiwan at the time, Douglas Paal, backs up Wilkerson’s account, which is being hotly disputed by key former defense officials.

Under the deliberately fuzzy diplomatic formula hammered out between former President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong in 1971, the United States agreed that there is only “one China” —with its capital in Beijing.

But right-wing Republicans in particular continued to embrace Taiwan as an anticommunist bastion 125 miles off the Chinese coast, long after their own party leaders and U.S. big business embraced the communist regime.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, some of Taiwan’s most fervent allies were swept back into power in Washington, particularly at the Pentagon, starting with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

They included such key architects of the Iraq War as Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, Douglas Feith, the undersecretary for policy, and Steven Cambone, Rumsfeld’s new intelligence chief, Wilkerson said. President Bush’s controversial envoy to the United Nations, John Bolton, was another.

While Bush publicly continued the one-China policy of his five White House predecessors, Wilkerson said, the Pentagon “neocons” took a different tack, quietly encouraging Taiwan’s pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian.

“The Defense Department, with Feith, Cambone, Wolfowitz [and] Rumsfeld, was dispatching a person to Taiwan every week, essentially to tell the Taiwanese that the alliance was back on,” Wilkerson said, referring to pre-1970s military and diplomatic relations, “essentially to tell Chen Shui-bian, whose entire power in Taiwan rested on the independence movement, that independence was a good thing.”

Wilkerson said Powell would then dispatch his own envoy “right behind that guy, every time they sent somebody, to disabuse the entire Taiwanese national security apparatus of what they’d been told by the Defense Department.”

“This went on,” he said of the pro-independence efforts, “until George Bush weighed in and told Rumsfeld to cease and desist [and] told him multiple times to re-establish military-to-military relations with China.”

Routine military ties had been suspended in early 2001 after China forced a U.S. reconnaissance plane down on Hainan Island off Vietnam.

Strong Denials

Feith, now teaching and working on a book at Georgetown University, responded that Wilkerson’s “remarks are not even close to being accurate. They are phrased so vaguely and sweepingly that it is impossible to deny them with precision, but they are not right.”

Rumsfeld’s former spokesman Lawrence DiRita called Wilkerson’s allegations “completely ridiculous—clear and simple . . . absurd.”

“The idea that there was some kind of DoD attempt to favor some faction in Taiwan, as described by Wilkerson ... is just crazy,” DiRita said in a brief telephone interview.

Wilkerson told a similar story in a recent critical biography of Rumsfeld by Washington-based British journalist Andrew Cockburn.

He elaborated on the episode during a May 7 panel, organized to discuss the controversy over Iraq intelligence at the University of the District of Colombia, as well as in subsequent conversations last week.

“It was a constant refrain of they said one thing, we said another thing for months on end,” Wilkerson said by e-mail. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, you are our allies and we will defend you—regardless.’ We said, ‘Do worry—if you declare independence, we may not be there; so be quiet and let sleeping dogs lie. . . .’ ”

Rewriting Bush

Another key character in the minidrama was Therese Shaheen, the outspoken chief of the U.S. office of the American Institute in Taiwan, which took on the functions of the American embassy after the formal 1979 diplomatic switch.

Shaheen, who happens to be DiRita’s wife, openly championed Chen and the independence movement, at one point even publicly reinterpreting Bush’s reiteration of the “one China” policy, saying that the administration “had never said it ‘opposed’ Taiwan independence,” according to a 2004 account in the authoritative Far Eastern Economic Review.

“Therese Shaheen . . . said don’t sweat it, the president didn’t really mean what he said,” Wilkerson said.

Coming from the wife of Rumsfeld’s spokesman, Shaheen’s remarks sent off angry alarms in Beijing.

Powell asked for her resignation.

Douglas Paal was then head of the American Institute in Taiwan, effectively making him the U.S. ambassador there. He backed up Wilkerson’s account.

“In the early years of the Bush administration,” Paal said by e-mail last week, “there was a problem with mixed signals to Taiwan from Washington. This was most notably captured in the statements and actions of Ms. Therese Shaheen, the former AIT chair, which ultimately led to her departure.”

Now retired, Paal said he, too, “received many first- and second-hand reports of messages conveyed to Taiwan by DoD civilians and perhaps a uniformed officer or two during that time that were out of sync with President Bush’s position.”

DiRita defended his wife, saying “she understood U.S. policy and executed it to the very best of her abilities and wasn’t trying to play games with” Taiwanese independence forces.

“That was always kind of a mythology of what happened over there,” he said.

Mushroom Clouds

“They are dangerous men who will lie about almost anyone or anything,” Wilkerson angrily responded by e-mail, singling out Feith, DiRita, Cheney and Rumsfeld for scorn.

He called back-stage encouragement of the Taiwanese “even more serious” than the alleged manipulation of Iraq intelligence, because it could provoke China to attack the island, triggering a U.S. response and the world’s first nuclear shooting war.

The independence issue, agrees China experts Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon, is Beijing’s third rail—touch it and you die.

“Even if the odds are fairly low of miscalculation leading to war, and war then bringing in the United States, this scenario is scary,” they recently wrote in The Washington Times.

A Taiwanese declaration of independence, they said, “could result in the first major war between nuclear weapons states in history, with no guarantee it would be successfully concluded prior to a major escalation.”

Jeff Stein can be reached at jstein@cq.com.

First posted June 1, 2007 5:48 p.m.

Correction
Corrects to say Paal is retired.
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