WASHINGTON - The United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan if the island were attacked by China, President Bush said yesterday, making what foreign policy analysts said was the most explicit U.S. promise of armed assistance for Taipei in more than two decades.
Later, the president seemed to soften his pledge, denying that there was any change in U.S. policy and describing American military intervention as an option and not a guaranteed result of an attack on Taiwan.
Even so, the comments added up to a hardening in U.S. rhetoric toward Beijing, if not a new policy, raising the oft-feared but seldom-discussed prospect of a U.S.-China war at a time when relations between the countries already are at a low point.
Asked on ABC's "Good Morning America" whether the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan if China attacked, Bush said: "Yes, we do. And the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would."
With the full force of the U.S. military? Bush was asked.
"Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," the president replied.
For years, U.S. military policy in the Taiwan Strait has been hidden under a cloud of "constructive ambiguity" designed to freeze both Beijing and Taipei into inaction.
Bush's comments to ABC went further in articulating that policy than those of any president since Jimmy Carter in 1979, when Washington stopped recognizing the nationalist government in exile on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China, pulled out of a security treaty with Taiwan and normalized relations with Beijing.
The Bush pledge of armed intervention against China "is a significant statement by the president, because we, in fact, have no written commitment to the government of Taiwan. It is a big step," said Philip Zelikow, a national security aide to Bush's father and international affairs analyst at the University of Virginia.
"The understanding has been one of calculated ambiguity," Zelikow said. "The president's statement was not ambiguous."
Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said Bush had not departed from a long-standing U.S. obligation to ensure that "Taiwan's peaceful way of life is not upset by force."
"What he said clearly is how seriously and resolutely he takes this obligation."
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Bush's remarks until the Beijing government has had a chance to evaluate his numerous statements yesterday on the relationship.
"We are still studying the remarks made by the president," the spokesman said. "The president has made many remarks. Maybe we should wait until this round of presidential remarks is completed."
Bush gave many interviews Tuesday and yesterday to mark the first 100 days of his presidency, discussing U.S. policy toward Taiwan in several of them.
When the Associated Press asked the president about possible military intervention to defend Taiwan, he delivered a reply that was softer than the one he had given ABC.
"It's certainly an option," Bush said. "And the Chinese have got to understand that is clearly an option."
In other interviews, Bush emphasized that U.S. support for Taiwan's security should not be seen as an endorsement of independence for the island, which China views as a renegade province.
"Our nation will help Taiwan defend itself," Bush told CNN. "At the same time, we will support the 'One China' policy, and we expect the dispute [between China and Taiwan] to be resolved peacefully.
"Nothing is really changed in policy as far as I'm concerned."
Advocates of the United States taking a hard line on policy toward China agreed with that idea yesterday, saying that Washington has always implicitly backed Taiwan with American military might.
"It's not a policy change," said Harvey Feldman, a former China hand at the State Department who helped draft the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that undergirds Washington's stance toward Taipei. "That's been the policy all along. [Bush] has phrased it more bluntly than anyone has phrased it before."
White House officials also denied any change in U.S. policy on China and Taiwan but acknowledged that Bush has taken a new tack in discussing it.
"We're committed to help Taiwan defend itself. We have been since 1979," said a White House aide. "It's there in the Taiwan Relations Act."
The act does not require the United States to defend Taiwan from China but says Washington will "maintain the capacity ... to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan."
Those advocating a firm stance toward China praised Bush's comments, saying that they would serve as a deterrent to Chinese aggression toward the evolving democracy of Taiwan.
"I think the president's straightforward, courageous and unambiguous statement will guarantee that hostility in the Taiwan Strait will not take place," said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.
"The real danger was in the previous [Clinton] administration, when it was very unclear to China whether we would come to Taiwan's defense," said Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican and House International Relations Committee member.
But others criticized Bush for what they said was a muddying of diplomatic waters.
"I think the president has wandered all over the lot here," said David Lampton, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "This doesn't strike me as particularly helpful. I just received an e-mail from China in which the person asked, 'Why has President Bush changed his policy on Taiwan?'"
Some Bush critics in Congress complained that the president had taken a bold policy step without seeking their counsel.
Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a New York Democrat, said: "I fear that in the course of two days we have moved from deliberate strategic ambiguity to strategic confusion."
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said: "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."
Although U.S. presidents have rarely talked about a military option in defending Taiwan, it has long been understood to exist. One instance in which the Washington factor loomed large came in 1996, when President Bill Clinton sent two American aircraft carrier groups to the vicinity of Taiwan after Beijing fired missiles off Taiwan's coast. A pivotal Taiwanese presidential election was days away.
While the comments of U.S. officials at the time were restrained, the dispatch of the carriers spoke louder than words, China analysts said.
Bush's comments yesterday, which were interspersed with more conciliatory statements, such as: "It's not in our interests ... to have fractured relations with China," came a day after he promised to provide Taiwan with a hefty arms package of destroyers, submarines and sub-hunter airplanes.
And they came weeks after a tense standoff in which Beijing held a U.S. aircrew for 11 days following the collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea.
Yesterday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing summoned Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher to protest the U.S. arms offer to Taiwan.
Bush told the Washington Post on Monday that U.S. arms packages for Taiwan will cease being reviewed on an annual basis and will be approved on an as-needed basis.