Taiwan is understandably upset by US Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent statement that it is not a sovereign country. He reportedly said in a TV interview, "Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy." He has also said that, "We want to see both sides not take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome," urging them to work toward "peaceful reunification."
It might look as though Powell was simply elaborating America's "one China" policy. But in laying down its eventual outcome of "reunification," his statement is a bit over the top. There has reportedly been some clarification that his use of the terminology "peaceful reunification" should have been "peaceful resolution". But the damage is done, because it will encourage China's intransigence and bellicosity.
Ever since the US recognized communist China, Beijing's Taiwan policy has been two-fold. First, to keep up the pressure on the US to ditch Taiwan. Second, to threaten Taiwan militarily. Neither has worked so far.
Beijing had hoped that the then-developing "strategic partnership" between the US and China against a shared Soviet threat would give it important leverage to influence Washing-ton's Taiwan policy. But that didn't work. In any case, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the underlying rationale of the so-called strategic partnership disappeared. And the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 further complicated Sino-US relationship.
Even today, China's basic Taiwan strategy remains the same: To bring about Taiwan's unification with China, with the US as a facilitator of sorts; and, simultaneously, to keep up military pressure on Taiwan.
Of late China believes it has acquired some leverage in the matter by its cooperation with the US on global terrorism, and by being not difficult on Iraq. More importantly, Washington needs China's active help to put a lid on North Korea's nuclear program.
The US is not going anywhere much with North Korea on the nuclear question. China is believed to be the key to any kind of progress on the subject.
But what is in it for China? It obviously wants a quid pro quo. And that quid pro quo is Taiwan. Beijing is not happy that its help on a range of US strategic objectives is not appreciated and rewarded. It has let known its displeasure, even hinting that this is not a blank check.
Therefore, Washington has been under considerable pressure to "rein in" President Chen Shui-bian (
Overstretched as the US is in Iraq and on global terrorism, and worrying about the unpredictable North Koreans with their atomic toys, it is keen to avoid being sucked into another conflict. As a result, Taipei is required not to anger and provoke Beijing.
Powell's statement, therefore, is intended to assure Beijing, as he was making a quick visit through Japan, China and South Korea, that the US doesn't subscribe to the idea of an independent and sovereign Taiwan. However, it still favors its resolution through a peaceful dialogue. And it will continue to sell arms to Taiwan to defend itself against Chinese military build-up (attack) across the Taiwan Strait.