Stephen Yates (left) talks with former AIT official Syd Goldsmith

Our speaker at the Shannon meet up was Stephen Yates, the former advisor to Vice President Darth Dick Cheney. Despite the impression one gets from the media that Bush Administration officials tend to suffer from a singular lack of human feeling, Yates turned out to be eminently approachable, personable, funny, balanced, and very insightful. Probably they revert to normal after the implant is removed….

Anyway, Yates took his listeners on a tour of Bush Administration Taiwan policy, and gave some surprisingly frank assessments of affairs on the inside (which I’m not sharing with you because — dammit — you should have been there). Along the way he confirmed the worst of my fears about the Bush Administration’s view of the world.

What’s the problem with Chen and the Bush Administration? Yates explained that back in 2000 the Administration came into office with a group of people who were fairly knowledgeable about and interested in Asia. Cheney’s fascination with Asia dated back to the 70s when Cheney worked in the Ford Administration. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage were two other neocons with Asia connections.

But then came 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. At the same time, overtures from Chen Shui-bian were being rebuffed by China. In 2002, during the planning for the Iraq War, Chen announced the “one country on each side of the Strait” paradigm in response to Chinese intransigence. The Bush Administration, caught up in war planning, complained that Chen was making trouble for it. Doesn’t he know he’s rocking the boat? Yates said that he had explained that of course Chen had no idea what was going on, because he lives in an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean. After that the Bush Administration simply wanted Chen to shut up so it could get on with its war in Iraq. As I’ve noted numerous times, since China chooses when Chen should be defined as “provocative,” the Bush Administration position essentially concedes its strategic flexibility and moral high ground to China. Nor does Chen help when he makes moves without informing the US beforehand…..no wonder I need strong drink after blogging on our Taiwan policy.

Yates discussed the National Unification Council flap, whose termination by Chen was criticized by the US. Yates said that in Washington there were complaints that the move was entirely symbolic — you’re imposing your symbolism on us! The Administration kvetched. But you’re imposing your symbolism on us, complained Chen back, an elegant refutation of the KMT talking point one often hears that Chen is “ideological” — always given, of course, with a wink and nod that assures that the speaker himself is entirely objective and not motivated by any ideology.

Yates also observed that US complaints about Taiwan’s behavior, when such behavior is largely harmless and symbolic, risk US credibility. Given the jeers that met Sarkozy’s kowtow to China on Taiwan and Tibet after the recent French visit there, I can only echo that fear. But then, given our behavior in Iraq, I’m afraid we don’t have much credibility to put at risk anymore. Someone remarked — I can’t remember who — that Chen Shui-bian is saying the things about China that the US really ought to be saying.

According to Yates, another structural problem with the US approach is that since the Bush Administration has curtailed high-level contacts, Bush Administration contact with Taiwan is carried on by mid-level officials who come out of policy backgrounds. Those are the kind of people, Yates pointed out, who think politics is dirty and shallow. They have never run for office and do not grok the mentality of politicians. Taiwan is also beset with other problems — too many voices attempt to speak for Taiwan, they don’t all say the same thing, and they work at cross-purposes, sometimes deliberately. And China’s lobbying power is much greater, with many powerful people having heavily monied connections to China (see the end of the post).

Yates, who did time at Heritage, repeated many of the same criticisms of officials in key Taiwan/China policymaking positions in the Bush Administration that other conservatives have offered. He also noted that there are no Congressman for whom China/Taiwan is a top five priority. Time was when powerful Congressman made China policy their business, he said, noting that someone like Jesse Helms would hold hearings and take other action. He compared recent statements by Sen. John Warner, whom, he said, spoke out without bothering to get informed (as I pointed out on this blog). Gone are the days when Congressmen like Sen. Claiborne Pell and Reps. Stephen Solarz and Jim Leach worked to keep Taiwan a priority and put an effort into understanding its gonzo politics.

Because the Administration wants Taiwan to keep quiet while it pursues its war in Iraq, Yates says it favors Ma Ying-jeou, who is perceived to be the one who will keep Taiwan quiet. To those of us watching from the outside, its bias is as obvious as it is erroneous– the same kind of short-sightedness, driven by Realpolitik (Real Men Decide the Fate of Nations©), under which the US will make permanent concessions to China in exchange for ephemeral gains. Yates and others commenting noted that Kissinger got taken to the cleaners by the Chinese. But Kissinger was a Manly Man, who decided the fate of nations…..US officials are going to be quite surprised by the big changes the pro-China ideologue Ma will make in the cross-strait relationship. Don’t say you weren’t warned….

As for arms sales, Yates at one point remarked that they were generally a very good thing. Speaking on President Bush’s statement that the US would defend Taiwan, Yates said that this statement was more or less implicitly in response to China’s lack of cooperation in the incident in which a Chinese fighter had a mid-air collision with a US military intelligence aircraft. Yates said that the White House picked up the hotline and called China….and incredibly, nobody answered! Personally, I have no doubt that nothing nefarious was happening. Instead, the hotline rang and everyone in the room froze: “Does anyone here speak English”…..?

All in all, Yates proved to be engaging and informative, the kind of person you’d be equally happy with running your Taiwan policy or swapping beers with at the Taiwan Beer bar. A good time was had by all, and too bad you weren’t there.

+++++++

My friend Marc Anthony was kind enough to forward some links for Yates. Here’s some of his Heritage Foundation Stuff:

Why Normal Trade With China Should Continue
No Concessions to China - After the Mistaken Embassy Bombing
Put Reform Before Reward at the China Summit

…along with an interview from those days. Best of all is this World Net Daily piece on how Elaine Chao, who came in to head up the Asian program at Heritage and has good connections to the Chinese leadership, got rid of panda bashers and helped tone down criticism of China at Heritage. Chao is the wife of powerful Sen. Mitch McConnell (R). On the other side of aisle, powerful Sen. Diane Feinstein (D (DINO)), is the wife of a major investor in China. Wonder why we don’t have a China policy? Now you know…..

UPDATE: the Taipei Times interview with Yates, the article appearing on the 19th of Dec.