In the strongest and most specific promise of military support for Taiwan from a U.S. president, President Bush said the United States would do "whatever it took" to defend the island if it were ever attacked by China.
In an interview aired on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today, Bush was asked if the United States has an obligation to defend Taiwan. "Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that," he said in the interview, which was taped on Tuesday.
Asked if his commitment would be backed up with the full force of the U.S. military, Bush replied: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself."
Shortly after these comments though, administration officials were scrambling to clarify them. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters there was no change in change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
"We expect any dispute to be resolved peacefully. The president's said that. We expect, hope, believe that peaceful resolutions are possible. He said that the Chinese have to hear that we'll uphold the spirit of the Taiwan Relations Act," Reeker said.
In interviews with CNN and The Associated Press today, Bush also softened his stance, only saying military force is "certainly an option" if China were to invade Taiwan.
He also reiterated Washington's commitment to the one-China policy, and did not say the use of U.S. military force would be considered if Taiwan were to declare independence.
"A declaration of independence is not the one-China policy, and we will work with Taiwan to make sure that that doesn't happen," he told CNN. "We need a peaceful resolution of this issue."
The comments follow the administration's notice to the Taiwanese government that it could buy new military hardware — but not the U.S. Navy's most advanced radar technology — to fend off a potential threat from China.
The potential sale is being viewed as a strong commitment by Bush to Taiwan, which China has long viewed as a renegade province.
'Going a Lot Farther'
Bush's comments appear to mark a significant change in policy regarding U.S. rhetoric on the Taiwan issue.
Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is pledged to provide Taiwan with "such defense articles and defense services ... as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." But a U.S. president has never articulated that the United States would actually undertake military action, as opposed to arming Taiwan to defend itself.
Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said, "I don't think any American president has ever committed carte blanche like that before."
The change in tone has drawn some fire. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., took the president to task today for not adhering to "strategic ambiguity" in his comments on Taiwan.
"We have been deliberately vague about the circumstances under which we would come to Taiwan's defense, not only to discourage Taiwan from drawing us in by declaring independence but also to deter a Chinese attack by keeping Beijing guessing," he said on the Senate floor.
Bush's words come a day after a U.S. delegation, led by Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Fred Smith, delivered the U.S. arms sale decision in a secret three-hour meeting with Taiwanese officials at Fort McNair, a U.S. Army base in Washington.
While China lodged a formal protest with the United States on Tuesday against the announced weapons sale, Chinese officials declined to respond to Bush's statements today.
At the meeting, the Taiwanese were told Bush had decided he would not — at least for now — let Taiwan buy super-sophisticated naval destroyers this year. Both Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell had recommended that Bush forgo sales of missile destroyers with advanced Aegis systems.
Fearing an invasion from mainland China, the Taiwanese government has been asking for the most high-powered new destroyers and radar gear. While the $1 billion Aegis-equipped ships will not be in Taiwan's shopping cart this year, the White House is signaling that if China further increases its saber rattling toward Taiwan, the situation could change.
"The president believes very strongly that the best way to promote peace and stability is to make certain that Taiwan has the means necessary to secure its defense needs," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said today, explaining the decision. "And this decision was made on the president's determination on how best to secure the peace and to provide Taiwan with the means necessary to defend itself."
The sale will not be everything Taiwan wants, but it will amount to the largest arms sale to the nation in nearly a decade — a fact that has angered mainland China.
Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi this morning delivered a formal protest of the decision to U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, said Reeker, the State Department spokesman.
Relations with China have suffered a major setback in recent weeks, with Beijing's 11-day detention of the crew of a U.S. surveillance plane that made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet. The pilot of the Chinese aircraft was lost.
Many lawmakers, especially Republicans, had been pressuring Bush to provide Taiwan with more and better weapons. The lawmakers say the surveillance plane incident demonstrated a need to counter Chinese aggressiveness and expansionism.
Taiwan's Shopping List
The United States will sell the following to Taiwan, according to the White House:
Four Kidd-class destroyers ready by 2003.
12 P-3C Orion aircraft.
Eight diesel submarines designed to counter blockades and invasions.
Paladin self-propelled artillery system.
MH-53E minesweeping helicopters.
AAV7A1 Amphibious Assault Vehicles.
Mk 48 torpedoes without advanced capabilities.
Avenger surface-to-air missile system.
Submarine-launched and surface-launched torpedoes.
Aircraft survivability equipment.
The United States also will give Taiwan a technical briefing on the Patriot anti-missile system the island has been developing.
ABCNEWS' Ann Compton, Vic Ratner and Tamara Lipper and ABCNEWS.com's David Ruppe contributed to this report. Shopping list compiled by The Associated Press.