Tue, May 16, 2006 - Page 8 News List

US transit ploy was aimed at Chen

By Lin Cho-shui 林濁水

The pan-blue camp calls the US transit incident a major diplomatic failure. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) says that the US is separating its Taiwan policy from its treatment of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), and that the incident will therefore not affect US-Taiwan relations. Chen himself says that the US' decision was not aimed at him alone, but at Taiwan, since the president represents the nation and is a symbol of its sovereignty.

These three interpretations are contradictory, but the odd thing is that they are all correct. Chen's interpretation is the most complete -- it analyzes the situation by stating a reason and by dividing US-Taiwan diplomacy into "practical" and "official" diplomacy.

The practical aspect of US-Taiwan diplomacy consists of the US' continued abidance by the Taiwan Relations Act and treatment of Taiwan, with which it has no diplomatic ties, as a country. It also maintains thriving economic relations with Taiwan and treats it politically as a partner sharing its democratic values and militarily as a partner helping it prevent China's military expansion in the Pacific.

The official aspect of US-Taiwan diplomacy consists of the US not recognizing Taiwan as a de jure independent and sovereign state. During the rule of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), the US strictly followed this approach. There were no official relations between the two countries, and neither the president nor his ministers could visit the US.

When Lee was president, changes to the international situation meant that the US no longer took such a strict approach toward non-recognition of Taiwan, allowing Lee to visit Cornell University, his alma mater, and thereby opening the way for Chen's transit diplomacy. The improvements signified by these adjustments, the mutual resumption of official visits, and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) being given consular powers may not have restored official diplomatic ties, but there is no question about the semi-official status of the US-Taiwan relationship.

Starting in 2003, Chen began messing up Taiwan's relationship with the US, and the US has had problems deciding how to retaliate. With the unchanging situation in East Asia, any retaliatory policy against Taiwan is certain to have a negative impact on US national interests.

If it doesn't retaliate, however, the US is afraid that Chen will inflate his own importance and feel secure due to shared US and Taiwanese interests. As a result, the US must separate its Taiwan policy from its retaliation against Chen in order to hurt Taiwan as little as possible, while hitting Chen where it hurts most.

After Chen upset the Americans by holding a referendum in 2003, I used this reasoning to predict that the US would take some action in connection to Chen's transits through the US, an issue that matters to Chen. This is also what happened when the US in 2004 tightened conditions for stopovers, and then again this time in the wake of the National Unification Council (NUC) issue.

Since the reception the US gives during transit stopovers forms part of a semi-official relationship, Washington felt that downgrading the reception would not bring substantial harm to the US-Taiwan relationship. In other words, both Chen and Lee are correct when they say that the bilateral relationship has not changed.

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