PRESIDENT BUSH meets today with Qian Qichen, China's deputy prime minister and the first senior Beijing official to visit the White House since the new administration began. Uppermost on Qian's agenda is the question of arms for Taiwan, which he calls "the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations." But uppermost on Bush's agenda must be to underscore that the Clinton appeasement is over. Qian will want Bush to assure him that the Taiwanese are not going to get the American defense technology they need. Bush should assure him they will.
To protect itself from the growing threat of Chinese ballistic missiles, Taiwan would like to purchase four US destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle-management radar system. Taipei is not exaggerating its vulnerability: As many as 300 missiles have been deployed on the Chinese coast opposite Taiwan. According to The Washington Times, US spy satellites have just exposed a second Chinese missile base across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing regularly asserts that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China -- and that it reserves the right to unify the two by force.
No doubt Qian will repeat at the White House what he has been saying all week: that there will be dire consequences if Washington says yes to Taiwan's request. But the consequences may be even more dire if Washington says no. Nothing is more likely to embolden China into an attack on Taiwan than the perception that America is hesitant about defending its democratic friend.
In 1992, Bill Clinton slammed the first George Bush for "coddling tyrants" in Beijing. But US policy was soon tilting even more lopsidedly to China. Clinton hailed the world's last totalitarian empire as a "strategic partner," ignoring Beijing's undisguised anti-American hostility. Human rights and trade were "de-linked." Counterintelligence against Chinese spies was weakened. US companies -- many of whose CEOs were lavish Clinton donors -- were given the green light to sell high-tech missile technology to China.
Asia's democracies found themselves snubbed by Clinton at China's behest. As part of his 1998 trip to China, for example, he (1) endorsed Beijing's "three Noes," a formula that treats Taiwan as little more than a Chinese province, (2) eliminated the customary stopover in Japan, which Tokyo read as an insult, and (3) joined Chinese president Jiang Zemin in denouncing India for its nuclear tests -- while saying nothing about China, which has not only tested but deployed nuclear weapons, and which has proliferated nuclear technology to some of the world's nastiest regimes.
"The Clinton administration's legacy in Asia," writes Ross H. Munro, who covered Asia for Time magazine, "has been to weaken America's standing, and to make China a greater danger to its neighbors and the United States than it would otherwise have been." Undoing that legacy must be one of Bush's priorities.
Before his meeting today, Bush ought to re-read the remarks he delivered on March 4 at the christening of the USS Ronald Reagan. He used that occasion to re-center America's orientation in the world on Reagan's view that "great democracies . . . are built on the strong foundation of consent and human dignity" while "any government built on oppression is built on sand." The implications of that approach for foreign policy, Bush said, are clear:
"America, by nature, stands for freedom.... We benefit when it expands. So we will stand by those nations moving toward freedom. We'll stand up to those nations who deny freedom and threaten our neighbors or our vital interests. And we will assert emphatically that the future will belong to the free."
If that means anything, surely it means that America will not deny the endangered democracy on Taiwan the hardware it needs to protect itself from the world's largest dictatorship. Bush should make it clear to Qian that if China doesn't want the sale of Aegis cruisers to go through, it must remove the missile threat that makes it necessary. The root of the crisis is Beijing's menacing behavior, not Taiwan's desire for freedom and safety.
Last month the State Department issued its new survey of human rights around the world. The section on China is harrowing, and gives the lie to the Clintonian spin that the more we "engaged" with Beijing, the more civilized it would become.
In 2000, reports the State Department, "the [Chinese] government's poor human rights record worsened, and it continued to commit serious abuses. The government intensified crackdowns on religion and in Tibet, intensified its harsh treatment of political dissent, and suppressed any person or group perceived to threaten the Government."
By year's end, "thousands of unregistered religious institutions had been either closed or destroyed . . . and thousands of Falun Gong practitioners remained in detention or were sentenced to [slave labor] camps or incarcerated in mental institutions. . . . Approximately 100 or more Falun Gong practitioners died as a result of torture and mistreatment in custody. . . .
"The Government continued to commit widespread and well-documented human rights abuses. . . . Abuses included instances of extrajudicial killings, the use of torture . . . and denial of due process . . ."
Ultimately, Washington and Beijing are separated by a chasm: the gap that divides the decent from the indecent. We can do business across that chasm, but we cannot pretend it doesn't exist. Clinton never grasped that point. Bush, let us hope, will.