The first two speeches by Tai-wanese presidents in the US speak much for how different the US-Taiwan relationship has become in the eight years between them. In that time the US has come to accept that a democratic Taiwan exists and accepts that the relationship should be managed in a different way than in the past. It has become more complicated even now, though the offshoot of democracy -- the legitimacy of its government and leadership -- is still to be addressed.
In 1994 tensions between the US and Taiwan arose over a request for then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to transit the US en route to Central America. Much, but not all, has been written about that episode, but the results left both sides unhappy. This was followed the next year by a resurrection of a request from Cornell for a Lee visit. The State Department stonewalled the request while Taiwan gained overwhelming Congressional and media support, resulting in a Taiwanese victory and an unhappy State Department. There was much more to that, of course, but the point here was that the relationship was not at its best.
Most of Lee's speech at Cornell had to do with Taiwan's economic accomplishments, and its democratization. Two paragraphs mentioned a hope for good relations with China, and many more were about his past at Cornell and gratitude for America's support. The speech was immediately denounced by the State Department as "too political," apparently because of his frequent use of "The Republic of China on Taiwan."
That assessment was not shared by the rest of the executive branch. It may be improper for American diplomats to refer to that title for diplomatic reasons, but the president of that country?
From then to the year 2000, the relationship was choppy but at least manageable. The election of that year finally made it clear that Taiwan was indeed a democracy and further that this made it necessary to conduct the relationship with that in mind. These last few months have made it clear that dealing with a fellow democracy may be more satisfying, but also more complicated. Tensions exist that are of a different kind than in 1995.
Nonetheless, transit restrictions for Taiwan's president have considerably loosened. There may have been anxiety in some parts of the US government for the most recent trip, with Taiwanese politics and sensitive democratic reform in mind, but quiet diplomacy and common sense seems to have prevailed. President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) spent two days in New York City, made a speech and met with many people, and then went on to Panama. Ironically, this kind of arrangement was a possible compromise option that the US did not wish to purse in 1995 though it could also have considerably lessened China's embarrassment in failing to stop a "visit" rather than a "transit" by Lee.
Chen's speech itself was even less "political" than the speech in 1995 (there was no reference in the written speech to "The Republic of China," but there were countless references to "Taiwan"). There were no references to cross-strait relations, and only some mild adlibbing at the end of his speech on the Chinese demon-strations outside the hotel. It would be stretching it even more than in 1995 if anyone considered the speech "too political."
The results of the two-day visit to New York was a success for both sides and seems to have lessened the tensions that existed in the recent past. There is, however, four months before the election. The closeness of the race, and the many fragile issues that could at any time sprout crisis of one kind or another -- domestically, with a China that could interfere overtly or covertly, or even with the US with its many difficult regional issues to address, could quickly change this atmosphere.