Sat, Mar 05, 2005 - Page 8 News List

US and Taiwan must listen better

By Richard Halloran

Communication between the government of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the administration of US President George W. Bush has become increasingly muddled, adding to the possibility of serious miscalculation in relations with China.

The Bush administration, preoccupied with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the insurgency in Iraq, volatile rivalry between Israel and the Palestinians, rebuilding relations with Europe and persuading Russia not to retreat from its sprouting democracy, has articulated no real policy on the Taiwan issue beyond platitudes about settling disputes peacefully.

Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Henry Stimson Center in Washington and a retired diplomat, recently warned that a blunder could lead to an escalation of tensions.

"While the chance of cross-strait conflict is not high," Romberg said, "it is also not zero, and the consequences would be enormous for all parties."

Taiwanese officials and US officials in Taipei, Washington and at the US Pacific Command in Hawaii point to three reasons for the less-than-open communications between the two capitals.

The first is that awkward, quasi-official relations between Taipei and Washington have been dictated by China's demand for a "one China" policy that precludes all but routine contact.

The second is the inexperience in both the foreign policy and statesmanship of Chen and his closest advisers and their tendency to see most issues through the lens of domestic politics.

And the third is Washington's failure to grasp Chen's drive for self-determination, compounded by mixed messages from the White House, the departments of state and defense, and the Congress.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii, who often takes part in non-governmental discussions on the issue, sums it up succinctly: "To have good communication, people on both ends need to listen."

"The Taiwanese are masters at ignoring US official communications and hearing only what they want to hear," Cossa says. "In Washington, the administration has been trying to get people to speak with one voice but I don't think they have been effective."

After former US president Jimmy Carter broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established official ties with China in 1979, the US set up the American Institute in Taiwan as an embassy in all but name. Routine communication through the institute works well, according to US and Taiwanese officials who have access to each other.

Chen and his foreign and defense ministers, however, have never had serious discussions with Bush or a secretary of state or defense because Beijing's "one China" policy forbids it. Chen as president has not been allowed to visit the US except for stopovers in transit. Nor have senior Bush officials been to Taiwan.

The role of personalities in international relations is not to be underestimated. Contrast the distance between Chen and Bush with the political ties that have evolved between Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Those two leaders have met a dozen or more times over the last four years and sometimes talk on the phone.

US officials contend that a letter from Bush and special envoys sent to Taipei have conveyed the administration's positions and thinking to Chen's government. Senior Taiwanese officials retort that they cannot be sure those communications reflect Bush's position or those of the messenger.

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