His immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, who had criticized the first President Bush for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” after the Tiananmen Square massacre, went through his own turbulent first term with China. In the midst of it, Clinton’s leading Asia diplomat responded to a direct question from the Chinese military on how Washington would react if China attacked Taiwan. His answer – “it would depend on the circumstances” – became the mantra for the doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” through subsequent administrations.
After Bush II took office, however, Beijing presented him with an early test of his own resolve in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. On April 1, 2001, a Chinese jet fighter pilot aggressively tracked and harassed a lumbering US reconnaissance aircraft, clipping the EP-3’s wing, destroying the Chinese plane and killing the pilot, and forcing the US plane to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Beijing extracted an apology from Washington, detained the crew for over a week, and held the plane for months before allowing the US military to retrieve it, dismantled and crated.
Mr. Bush was not pleased with Chinese behavior and, when asked later that month what America would do if China were to attack Taiwan, he responded: “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan. With that statement, Bush seemed to be putting US-China relations in a posture of strategic clarity. Although China experts in and out of the government rushed to assure Beijing that Washington’s policy toward Taiwan had not changed, Bush’s words, together with his approval of a large arms package for Taiwan, had delivered a healthy new deterrent message against Chinese adventurism and miscalculation.