WASHINGTON — Asked at a March 1 presidential debate in Los Angeles
how far he’d go to defend Taiwan, Vice President Al Gore held up the
Clinton administration’s 1996 naval response to the Taiwan Strait crisis
as a good example, characterizing it as a direct U.S. military
intervention in the channel of water separating mainland China from
Yet, although the U.S. dispatched two aircraft-carrier battle groups
to the West Pacific during that crisis, it only stationed one carrier
near Taiwan waters — to avoid “antagonizing” China, the former
commander of U.S. Pacific forces has told sources privately.
The softer response to Communist China’s missile threats in the
run-up to Taiwan’s first fully free elections in March 1996 conflicts
with the Clinton administration’s account. It also undercuts its new
tough rhetoric as China again threatens to use force against Taiwan
before its second presidential election on Saturday.
“In previous periods like this, Beijing has also done some even more
threatening things,” Gore said. “And I was part of the decision that
President Clinton and the administration made to quietly, without
notice, without ballyhooing it, send the U.S. Pacific fleet right down
– not the entire fleet, but warships — right down the middle of the
In fact, neither warship sailed “down the middle” of the strait or
even near its ends. But more than that, the two carriers never converged
on the island republic to protect it, sources familiar with the
Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific
Command at the time, remarked to defense experts gathered in a
closed-door meeting in 1997, that the administration wanted to throttle
back the operation as a signal to Beijing that Washington was trying not
to appear too confrontational.
“We didn’t want the Chinese to think we were antagonizing them,” one
source recalled Prueher telling the group of experts, who for the most
part agree with the administration’s pro-China “engagement” policy.
Still, upon hearing that, “Some of us almost fell off our chairs,”
the source told WorldNetDaily. “We were floored by the statement.”
Prueher is now the U.S. ambassador to China.
More than just undermining the administration’s claims of standing up
to Chinese threats in March 1996, the disclosure calls into question its
resolve in rescuing Taiwan from actual attack from China — something
Beijing is now vowing to do should Taiwan so much as balk at
“This is unbelievable,” said Ed Timperlake, a former congressional
adviser on national security. “If the American reliance on sea power is
basically to deter aggression against Taiwan, and the Chinese government
knows that the deterrence was hollow, then that just increases the
aggression of China.”
He summed up the Clinton-Gore policy as, “Talk loudly and carry a
The presence of a second warship near Taiwan was thought to be
pivotal in showing force. It also had strategic military significance in
the event of battle.
The USS Independence, the first carrier dispatched four years ago,
was already stationed nearby. Its home port is in Japan. China knows
that the ship can steam to Taiwan’s side at short notice.
Only by stationing a second carrier off Taiwan waters could China see
the U.S. was “serious” about defending Taiwan against further
provocation, China-watchers say.
And in battle, “a carrier deck can usually get off about 60 or more
planes at one time to do the job. But the more the better. And two are
mutually supporting,” said Timperlake, a former Navy fighter pilot who’s
co-authored two books on China, “Year of the Rat” and
“Red Dragon Rising.”
“Heck, one (carrier) is an easy problem — China can follow it and
have all its assets track it,” he added.
The administration recently put the USS Kitty Hawk on alert as China
this time fired “paper missiles” over Taiwan.
In a white paper released last month, Beijing lowered the threshold
for invasion. Before, it said it would attack the island if it declared
independence. Now it warns it will attack merely if Taipei fails to
engage in reunification talks. Taiwan’s stock market has nose-dived on
The administration says it has sufficiently scolded Beijing over its
“We immediately challenged it,” Gore said in the debate. “We took
them to task.”
On Taiwan’s security, the U.S. does not engage in empty talk, said
Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific
affairs. “This has been shown by the 1996 record,” he said.
The real 1996 record
It’s useful to first reconstruct events leading up to the
administration’s actions. Rewind to March 8 of that year.
In an effort to bully pro-independence Taiwanese voters ahead of
their March 23 election, China fired intermediate-range missiles at both
ends of the island. The target zones were close enough to Taiwan’s two
biggest ports — Keelung in the north and Kaohsiung in the south — to
China marked off an exclusion zone for its major exercises (which
included aircraft bomb drops), warning ships of other nations –
including the U.S. — to stay clear. That, combined with bracketing both
ends of the island with missile fire, let China in effect shut down the
strait, a key international shipping lane.
China’s military wasn’t just conducting military exercises, analysts
say. It was testing the effectiveness of a blockade — which, if held
long enough, could choke Taiwan economically.
And the blockade worked. Even the U.S. — in a first — stayed out of
China’s designated no-sail zone, even though it extended beyond the
mainland’s territorial waters and into international waters.
China expanded its exercises and, on March 11, the Clinton
administration finally ordered the Independence, which was in Okinawa,
to sail down with its escorts toward the back side, or east coast, of
That day, Defense Secretary William Perry also announced the U.S.
would “send another carrier battle group from the Persian Gulf to join
the Independence task force,” presumably — though he did not say at the
time — near Taiwan.
Later, in his book “Preventive Defense,” Perry said, “We concluded
that we should send two carrier battle groups to patrol off Taiwan, but
that they should not go into the (Chinese) exercise area.”
The second carrier was the USS Nimitz. It was deployed in the Gulf at
the time and was ordered, after being replaced by another carrier, to
“steam at high speed to Taiwan,” Perry said in his book. “It could get
there in 10 to 12 days.”
On March 22, the Pentagon said the Nimitz had sailed into the Strait
of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia. The strait connects the
Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, which connects to the West Pacific.
But Defense officials, responding to reporters, were at a loss to say
where the Nimitz would ultimately be stationed.
“A decision as to where — not aimlessly — it will sail will be made
shortly and announced to you promptly after it’s made,” said a senior
official at the March 22 Pentagon briefing.
Even Perry fails to say in his book where the Nimitz was stationed.
He gives minute detail about its deployment and origin, but stops short
of revealing its destination.
Calls to Perry’s California office were not returned.
There’s no evidence, at least not from public briefings and records,
that the USS Nimitz carrier ever sailed on to Taiwan during China’s
exercises, which lasted until March 25. And the Pentagon is no help. It
won’t release data from ship logs for a definitive answer.
In fact, senior Navy Department officials, after first agreeing to
provide general routes and destination points, later refused — claiming
that any information related to warship logs is a national security
issue and therefore classified. Even though the maneuvers are four years
“We do not as a matter of security discuss the exact locations,” said
Navy Lt. Comdr. Ike Skelton.
Not even whether the Nimitz sailed into a big body of water like the
South China Sea? “That’s correct,” he said. Skelton would only say that
it was “steaming under its own power to the Pacific.”
However, a lower-ranking Navy officer in the Pentagon confirmed, in a
separate interview, that both carriers were never in the Taiwan area
together during the March 1996 crisis.
“In 1996, we were talking about sending two aircraft carriers. Well,
only one was actually near Taiwan,” Navy Lt. Jensin Sommer said. “But
when you see the media reports, you always read — ‘Two aircraft
carriers in the strait’ — when in actuality one was on its way, but
never really made it in the area before things cooled off.”
The media of course were just quoting the administration. Two months
after the crisis, Clinton boasted that the “two carrier battle groups we
sent to the area helped to defuse a dangerous situation.”
“Fact is, there weren’t two (carriers) simultaneously on station,”
said one source who heard it from Prueher in a meeting. Prueher was
still in command at the time.
“The Chinese realized that this was a signal that we were not trying
to antagonize them,” the source, who wished to go unnamed, recalled
Prueher say. “They picked up on it.”
Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, commander-in-chief, U.S. Pacific
Command, shows Pearl Harbor to Chinese President Jiang Zemin in late
1997. Photo by PH2 Tina Ackerman, U.S. Navy
“The way he talked,” he added, “it allowed the administration to say
(to Taipei, the American public and Congress) that they sent two battle
groups to the area, when in fact they really didn’t, while at the same
time not antagonizing China.”
Another source conveyed that Prueher told him in a separate, private
talk that the Nimitz was ordered not to speed to Taiwanese waters, which
is at odds with Perry’s “high speed” account. The slower speed
ostensibly was a delaying tactic to let China wrap up its exercises
before the second warship ever had to enter the West Pacific.
Indeed, Prueher said as much after a resolution to defend Taiwan
passed the House during the March 1996 crisis.
“We are hopeful that this crisis will be resolved before the Nimitz
gets there,” he said.
Prueher’s own bias helps explain the tepid military response.
“The admiral has a reputation in the Pentagon of being pro-Beijing,”
wrote Washington Times defense reporters Bill Gertz and Rowan
Scarborough in a recent column. “He so upset some officials during his
tour at Pacific Command he was once dubbed ‘Panda-hugging Prueher.’”
WND reached Prueher’s office in China, but his spokeswoman Lisa
Heller said he declined to be interviewed.
A 19-gun salute
Prueher embraces the administration’s unshakable commitment to
comprehensive — political, economic and military — engagement with
China. That policy was in full flower in March 1996.
On March 8, 1996, at the same time the Chinese army was preparing to
shoot missiles at both ends of Taiwan, Perry, National Security Adviser
Tony Lake and State Secretary Warren Christopher were meeting in
Washington with Chinese minister Liu Huaqiu. He’s the director of the
State Council’s Foreign Affairs Office, the equivalent of the U.S.
National Security Council.
Liu was in Washington as an honored guest, part of the Clinton-Gore
program of reciprocal red-carpet visits between high-level officials of
the U.S. and Beijing governments. Perry said they had stern words for
Liu after learning of the live-fire exercises, but said Liu assured him
no harm would come to Taiwan.
At the time, the Pentagon was also in the throes of
military-to-military contacts with Beijing. Next up was Chinese Minister
Chi Haotian. Gen. Chi, who helped plan the Tiananmen Square massacre,
was scheduled for a White House visit in early April 1996.
The Taiwan threats put that back a few weeks.
Chi was nonetheless honored with a 19-gun salute and a grand tour of
U.S. facilities and operations that even included a trip to the nuclear
weapons research lab in Sandia, New Mexico.
Bowing to GOP pressure
The White House has often raised its 1996 military action, weak as
it was, to fend off charges it’s soft on China — which despite some
economic reforms is still run by communist hard-liners, including
People’s Liberation Army generals.
But observers say Clinton’s hand was forced by Rep. Nancy Pelosi,
D-Calif., an outspoken Beijing critic, and Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., who
wrote a resolution — just before China lobbed missiles over both ends
of Taiwan — declaring that the U.S. was obligated to come to Taiwan’s
aid if China attacked. If the Taiwan Relations Act is a gummy promise,
his measure gave it teeth by applying it to a specific event.
The March 1996 resolution, which passed by a near-unanimous vote in
both the House and Senate, was “instrumental in President Clinton’s
decision to send a second aircraft carrier task force to the Taiwan
area,” said sinologists Richard Bernstein and Ross
Munro, authors of “The Coming Conflict With China.”
“Cox and Pelosi were beating the living hell out of him (Clinton),”
agreed a Senate staffer. “Remember, this was an election year. This is
on the front page of every newspaper in the country. We got e-mails from
the Pentagon saying, ‘Do something, do something.’
“Finally,” he added, “somebody on the political side of the White
House — I think it was (former political director Harold) Ickes –
found out about this (foot-dragging) and said, ‘Are you guys nuts?’ And
that’s when Clinton sent the carrier.”
Administration officials also are quick to point out that it was
Clinton who in 1995 issued Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui a visa to
come to the U.S. to make a speech at his alma mater, Cornell University.
The move enraged Beijing, which saw it as U.S. recognition of Lee as a
leader of an independent state.
But again, observers say Clinton bowed to pressure from a Republican
Congress, which passed resolutions overwhelmingly in favor of letting
Lee come to America.
Beijing also bristles over U.S. arms transfers to Taiwan during the
Clinton administration. But the major one — a $6 billion sale of F-16
fighter jets — was OK’d by the Bush administration.
After the 1996 crisis, Clinton talked tough on China in public. But
in private, he seemed to toe the Beijing line.
“When China expanded its military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, we
made clear that any use of force against Taiwan would have grave
consequences,” he said in a May 1996 speech.
And he warned Beijing leaders as much in “private dialogue,” the
White House said — dialogue “which will remain private.”
But Clinton told Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie, a key fund-raiser with ties
to Beijing, a different story. In a letter sent in April 1996, Clinton
assured Trie that the “redeployment of the Independence and Nimitz …
was not intended as a threat to the PRC (People’s Republic of China).”
Clinton was responding to a rather threatening letter sent to him by
Trie on March 21, 1996 — in the heat of the Taiwan Strait crisis.
Seeming to speak for Beijing, Trie warned Clinton: “Any negative
outcomes of the U.S. decision in the China issue will affect your
administration position especially in the campaign year.”
The same day Trie sent Clinton the missive, he donated $460,000 to
the Clinton Legal Expense Trust fund.
Does it matter?
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1974 mandates that the U.S. come to the
aid of Taiwan in the event it’s attacked.
Sec. 2 (b) of the law states that not only must the U.S. “provide
Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” But it must itself “maintain
the (military) capacity to resist any force or other forms of coercion
that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of
the people on Taiwan.”
It also states that coming to the defense of Taiwan is in the
“political, security and economic interests of the United States.”
Sec. 3 (c) directs the president “to inform the Congress promptly of
any threat to the security of Taiwan” and coordinate “appropriate action
in response to any such danger.”
The law looms large as Beijing lines up missile launchers along its
coast opposite Taiwan and sharpens its rhetoric against Taipei.
“Let me give advice to all the people of Taiwan: Do not act just on
impulse at this critical juncture,” Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongi
said this week in a thinly-veiled warning to voters favoring
pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian.
“The Chinese people will use all their blood and even sacrifice their
lives to defend the unity of our motherland,” Zhu bellowed to reporters
The Washington Times this week quoted some undeterred Taiwanese
voters who say they are sure the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s side if
China follows through on its war threats.
“The mainland will never attack us because we have the international
police — the United States,” one Taipei voter said.