President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) stopped in Libya on his way home from a visit to Latin America. He continued on to Indonesia before returning to Taiwan. The US, in contrast, refused to allow him to even stay overnight on US soil.
The administration of US President George W. Bush is starting to act a lot like the Clinton administration.
The complexities surrounding the China-Taiwan dispute are well-known. Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan, while a majority of the latter's population seems to prefer to forge a separate identity and, ultimately, create an independent nation.
However, for Taiwan to declare independence would risk war. No one would win, least of all the US, if it found itself in a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed China.
US allies are no less enthused about being involved in any conflict. For this reason, nations from Australia to South Korea have been distancing themselves from US policy toward Taiwan.
Thus, there's good reason for Taiwan to act responsibly whenever the People's Republic of China (PRC) is concerned and equally good reason for Washington to discourage Taiwan from unduly provocative behavior. The question is not fairness, but prudence.
Here the two governments disagree. Apparently for domestic political reasons as much as foreign policy objectives, Chen has roiled cross-strait relations, and the US has taken offense. So to punish Taipei the Bush administration has stolen from the playbook of its predecessor.
In 1994 Washington denied former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) a visa to stop for a day in Hawaii. The Clinton administration treated newly-elected Chen the same way -- until the Conservative Congress stepped in. Finally, Washington stopped treating Taiwanese officials as pariahs.
Chen hoped to overnight in Houston, New York or San Francisco on his way to Latin America. The US administration said no -- he could refuel in Honolulu, Hawaii, but would have to immediately fly on. So he chose a different route.
Washington apparently denied Chen a visa for two reasons. It's not clear which is worse. One, coming on the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) visit to the US, was to win Chinese favor on other issues, including Iran and North Korea.
This would be "extremely naive," as Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute points out. The PRC can't be bought this cheaply.
The other reason was to punish Chen and the Democratic Progressive Party. Whatever the Bush administration's preferences, the choice of Taiwan's leaders is up to the Taiwanese people. Attempts to meddle in the elections of other nations almost always backfire: the PRC has been no less ham-handed in its efforts to influence Taiwanese voters.
Libya, still run by a once terrorist-minded dictator, and Indonesia, a nation noted for anti-American sentiments and violent jihadists, exhibited more openness than did the US. Whatever Washington policymakers think of Chen's policies, they shouldn't prevent him from meeting with Americans who want to hear him.
Rather than trying to micro-manage cross-strait relations and Taiwanese politics, the US should distance itself. Sell Taiwan all of the arms that it wants, support its participation in international organizations such as the WHO, and stay out of its internal affairs.
In return, keep clear of Chinese and Taiwanese brickbats, especially if war breaks out. And make it clear that the US does not expect its Asia-Pacific friends to be prepared to fight over the issue. Today the administration's maladroit handling of the issue risks making conflict more rather than less likely.