The Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration is not having a great time of late, with the recent legislative elections upset compounded by the statement by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage concerning the US commitment to defend Taiwan.
Armitage was reported to have said during a TV interview that the US was not committed to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. The commitment, he maintained, was to sell defensive arms to Taiwan.
He also said that only the US Congress would make the decision to defend it, and not the Bush administration. He also reiterated the US position that "there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of China."
According to Armitage, Taiwan was emerging as a "landmine" in US-China relations.
His boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell, said a few months ago in an interview that Taiwan was not a sovereign nation, and urged both Beijing and Taipei to seek "peaceful reunification."
The obvious question is: What is going on? The answer is that the US is looking after its immediate interests.
The US is bogged down in Iraq. It needs all the help it can get. Therefore, China's support or neutrality in this regard and on the global war on terrorism is very important.
As Professor Amin Saikal, director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, says: "If the present trends in Iraq endure [over a period of time] the US stands to sustain critical political and economic damage, with an expanding vulnerability to wider opposition within the Arab and Muslim worlds and serious setbacks in the war on terrorism."
Beijing is not unaware of the US predicament and will use it to its advantage.
At the same time, North Korea is proving to be a diplomatic nightmare. The Bush administration has got itself badly entangled in the North Korean nuclear proliferation issue, having threatened the regime with all sorts of consequences when Washington decided to up the ante. But it is not making much headway. What-ever little has so far happened in terms of six-power negotiations (now stalled) was due to Beijing's initiative.
If anything, Pyongyang is becoming more fearful that the US is actively engaged in destabilizing Kim Jong-il's regime. They are not keen on another round of talks.
Georgy Toloraya, research director at the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies in Russia, is of the view that the present regime in North Korea will not collapse like some of the former East European communist states.
According to him, "[North Korea] is not a Stalinist state as commonly reported. It is a combination of Oriental despotism, theocracy and Confucianism -- a bureaucratic monarchy."
Hence, it is tied up in so many knots that unravelling it requires the utmost caution.
If so, Washington will be looking to Beijing even more to solve the North Korean riddle, but cannot if Chen keeps up the pace for Taiwan's formal independence. It is immaterial if Chen is seeking independence or not. Beijing regards him as dangerous and wants Washington to "rein him in." The State Department's panic is clearly reflected in Armitage's remarks that Taiwan is emerging as a sort of land mine in US-China relations.
It is worth noting, though, that the Pentagon doesn't seem to share this sense of panic at the State Department. It continues to cement and develop military ties with Taiwan. As reported in the media, Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander of the US forces in the Pacific, told the Chinese as recently as July that the US wouldn't look the other way if China were to attack Taiwan. Even Armitage stood by the US commitment to sell arms to Taiwan for its defense.