While most discussion centers on whether or not the successful re-election of US President George W. Bush is beneficial to Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian (
Although US Secretary of State Colin Powell caused a stir by saying "Taiwan is not independent, it does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation," and that both sides of the Taiwan Strait should "move forward ... to that day when we will see a peaceful unification," the Bush administration took steps to clarify its policy in the Strait.
Taiwan faces an even more serious challenge now that Bush has been re-elected. The "Powell incident" should not be seen as simply a slip of tongue or a product of factional disputes within the Bush administration. Nor should Taiwan feel relaxed by Washington's assurances that their Taiwan policy has not changed. The core problem is the extent to which the triangular relationship between the US, Taiwan and China has evolved and how this transformation will influence Washington's policy.
Powell's description of cross-strait relations can be traced back to statements made by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia James Kelly in April.
Amid concerns over how the DPP government would implement Chen's campaign promise to enact a new constitution, Kelly reminded Taiwan leaders of "uncomfortable realities" that could pose severe challenges to future US-Taiwan relations.
Those "uncomfortable realities," according to Kelly, are closely associated with growing gap in perception about Taiwan's status quo, an apparent lack of trust regarding Chen's next steps toward constitutional reform and concerns about the potential for military confrontation originating from a reckless move by Beijing.
Entangled with its own global fight against terrorism, its ill-considered war in Iraq and re-election, the last thing that Bush and his neoconservative team wanted was additional "trouble" in the Taiwan Strait.
Chen's repeated affirmation of the reality that Taiwan is an independent and sovereign state and his winning of a new mandate after March 20 election prompted decision-makers in Washington to draw a "red line" before Chen's May 20 inaugural address.
Not only has the Bush team emphasized that "the status quo of Taiwan should be defined by Washington," a clearer US policy stance has been elaborated as a way to set up a "preventative mechanism" to monitor Chen's moves toward reform. The moderate stance Chen took in his inaugural and National Day addresses are quite possibly the result of pressure from the US.
This was the context for Powell's perception of the cross-strait situation. Powell's statements thus constituted a continuation of Kelly's speech and should be read as revealing a possible reorientation of how the US intends to handle cross-strait affairs.
US worries about cross-strait tension stem from the perception that Beijing will make a "dangerous, objectionable, and foolish response" to Taiwan's continued affirmation of its sovereignty. Since China is less predictable than democratic Taiwan, it is a natural move for Washington to look to Taiwan first for restraint.
Chen's government urgently needs a new pattern of strategic thinking to reframe the Taiwan-US relationship. Chen must let the next Bush team understand the goals of his administration. He must also forge a stable and predictable relationship with his counterpart and intensify efforts to convince Washington that Taiwan is an asset -- rather than a liability -- in Washington's dealing with China. Only then can Taiwan's national interests be safeguarded and miscommunication be avoided.