"Sometimes tempers flare [in Taiwan] and in such a way that it could trigger unintentional consequences," were the words yesterday of US Senator John Warner, a Republican from Virginia.
The senator was delivering a thinly veiled warning to Taiwan during a committee meeting on the Asia-Pacific region. While questioning the commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, the senator made it clear that he did not want to see "provocative" acts by Taiwan.
Warner's comments come amid a flurry of such utterances by US officials, including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who on April 12 warned both China and Taiwan to refrain from provocations ahead of next year's Olympics in Beijing.
It is de rigueur for US officials to talk about "maintaining the status quo" and to give impromptu lectures on the nuances of the "one China" policy and the Taiwan Relations Act.
But Warner, with his comments to Keating, took direct aim at Taiwan.
"I hope Taiwan recognizes that the United States of America is heavily engaged militarily worldwide. And we do not need another problem in that region [the Asia-Pacific]," Warner said.
"So I hope they don't try to play the Taiwan Relations card to their advantage," he said.
Unfortunately, Warner's insistence on singling out Taiwan highlights two of the most fundamental problems that this nation faces in its dealings with US policymakers.
The first is a basic misunderstanding by many US policymakers and academics of what motivates Taiwanese politicians and drives local politics.
If Taiwanese politicians are saying and doing things that Washington or Beijing find irritating, it is the height of arrogance to assume that they are doing it simply because their "tempers flare."
The theatrics in the Legislative Yuan, the perpetual protests and TV talk shows may lend credence to the suspicion that Taiwanese politicians are immature troublemakers (often they are), but they must be interpreted within the context of local politics.
It was not rash anger that drove President Chen Shui-bian (
Meanwhile, the same goes for parts of the pan-blue camp (especially the People First Party) when they oppose procuring US weapons systems. These politicians aren't motivated by ire; they're motivated by a desire to keep their jobs by retaining supporters.
The second problem that Warner's comments highlight is a perception among some people that Taiwan's de facto independence -- and not China's questionable claim to Taiwan as part of its territory -- is the source of friction in the Taiwan Strait.
This little fallacy needs to be put down as quickly as possible.
Taiwan is not the problem. The Taiwanese people are not the problem. No one in Taiwan is seriously calling for the military to invade China (at least, not anymore). No one in Taiwan is threatening to wipe US cities from the map. No one in Taiwan is even saying that they would be willing to watch millions of Chinese die, simply for the sake of hollow pride.
Now take a look at China. There are some encouraging voices in the wilderness, people who call for calm and restraint. But there are just as many officials in China who thunder for blood, death and destruction. There are plenty of politicians in China who are willing to build their careers and their legacy on a mountain of skulls.
Senator Warner, at the end of the day, it isn't Taiwan that threatens war; it is China.
So why warn Taiwan about being "provocative"?
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