Striking a hawkish stance on Asian security issues, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole on Thursday endorsed U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defenses in East Asia countries, including Taiwan, despite China’s vehement opposition to such systems.
In the first foreign-policy speech of his campaign against President Clinton, Dole also endorsed the renewal of China’s most-favored-nation trade trade privileges.
Dole’s stand on MFN was no surprise because he has been supporting unconditional extension of China’s trade benefits in the Senate for the past half-decade.
But some leading Republicans, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Jesse Helms and Dole’s opponent Patrick J. Buchanan, have been arguing for revocation of MFN, hoping to draw a sharp contrast with Clinton on the issue. Instead, Dole’s position will give Clinton political cover.
Dole devoted his entire speech to Asia, repeatedly criticizing the administration for mishandling relations with the leading nations across the Pacific. “The bottom line is that American credibility in Asia is low and still declining, and American interests are challenged throughout the region,” he asserted.
The Republican candidate’s speech galvanized the White House into a frenetic series of rapid responses by national-security aides. Vice President Al Gore praised Dole for supporting Clinton’s policy on China’s trade benefits, and dismissed his criticisms of the administration as “a lot of dust kicked up for political purposes.”
The most striking part of Dole’s speech was his willingness to champion Taiwan’s interests and Taiwan’s defense.
“Our policy should be unmistakably resolute: If force is used against Taiwan, America will respond,” Dole said.
He did not say exactly what the response should be. Still, those words go further toward an unqualified American security commitment to Taiwan than the United States has been willing to give since 1979, when the United States broke off its defense treaty with Taiwan.
Dole also said the United States should consider supplying Taiwan with a host of other new and advanced weapons systems, including submarines and air-to-air missiles.
Such sales almost certainly would touch off a confrontation with China, which says they would violate a 1982 communique between Washington and Beijing limiting U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Dole’s remarks are sure to be welcomed by the American defense industry, which is seeking to increase sales of advanced equipment to Taiwan and other governments in Asia. At least one company, Lockheed Martin, already has begun talking with Taiwan about a theater-missile defense system.
At the same time, Dole’s speech also underscored the role the senator has played on China policy for nearly two decades.
Throughout his long career in the Senate, Dole has been one of Taiwan’s strongest supporters. When President Carter moved to establish diplomatic relations with China in late 1978, Dole led the congressional opposition, arguing that it would be unfair to Taiwan.
Over the past year, Taiwan has re-emerged as an issue in American politics. In March, China - irked by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s efforts to gain international recognition - fired missiles near Taiwan’s coastline only a few weeks before Taiwan held its first direct presidential election.
In Thursday’s speech, Dole said the United States should work with its closest Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to develop, test and deploy ballistic missile defenses. He said this should be called the Pacific Democracy Defense Program.
The Clinton administration has talked to Japan and South Korea about the possibility of such defense systems. But Dole went further, saying “it is time to move past paper studies to deployment decisions.”
And he said Taiwan should be included in the new missile-defense program: “There is no more clearly defensive and clearly necessary weapons system for Taiwan than effective missile defense.”
Gore, in an interview arranged by White House officials with a small group of reporters, insisted the administration is moving to provide Asian countries with missile defenses. He noted, for example, that the United States has provided Taiwan with the Patriot missile-defense system.
However, the administration has not yet endorsed the deployment of advanced theater-missile defense systems in Taiwan or elsewhere in Asia.
China has said the advanced missile defense system “would disturb the Asia-Pacific regional situation.” Indeed, the governments of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have not decided they want a theater-missile defense system.