US Secretary of State Colin Powell astonished observers in both East Asia and the US last month with extraordinarily candid comments on the Taiwan issue. His statements moved US policy closer than ever to Beijing's position that Taiwan must reunify with China -- an especially surprising step coming from a conservative Republican administration.
In an interview on CNN International during his trip to East Asia, Powell explicitly embraced the goal of eventual reunification, which, he said, "all parties are seeking." His statement ignored the wishes of millions of Taiwanese who have no interest in reunification and regard the island as a separate society and independent state. Moreover, never before had Washington taken a public stand on the reunification issue.
Powell offered even more startlingly pro-Beijing comments in an interview with Hong Kong's Phoenix Television. He stressed that Washington had made it clear to all parties that "the United States does not support independence for Taiwan. It would be inconsistent with our one-China policy."
He then made that point even more explicit: "There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation."
Lest anyone missed the point, he added, "Independence movements or those who speak out for independence movements in Taiwan will find no support from the United States."
Predictably, China is quite pleased with Powell's rejection of any outcome other than reunification. Just as predictably, the Taiwanese government regards his comments as a betrayal.
It is breathtaking how far Washington has moved from its early stance on the Taiwan issue. During the 2000 presidential campaign, US President George W. Bush and his advisers criticized the Clinton administration for being too favorable to China's position. Then, in a television interview on April 25, 2001, Bush appeared to discard the nuances and caveats about protecting Taiwan that previous administrations had adopted.
When asked by ABC News reporter Charles Gibson if the US had an obligation to defend Taiwan, Bush replied, "Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that."
Would the US respond "with the full force of the American military?" Gibson pressed. "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself," Bush replied.
A few weeks after that statement, Bush approved the largest arms sales package to Taiwan since his father's controversial sale of F-16 fighters in 1992.
It wasn't just the firmness of the commitment to defend Taiwan that marked the administration's policy, however. In marked contrast to the attitude of the Clinton administration, "stopover" visits by President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and other officials were welcomed. Such stopovers often included public appearances and meetings with Washington's apparent blessing, even as Beijing seethed. At one point in 2002, Taiwan's defense minister met "informally" with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz during a security conference hosted by a think tank in Florida. That was the highest-level meeting between US and Taiwanese officials in more than two decades.
But then came a shift in the administration's attitude -- a change that presaged Powell's even more emphatic actions. A crucial episode occurred during a visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (