Washington has now heard the two candidates from Taiwan's main political parties state their objectives. During his trip to the US, Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (
There are numerous reasons why constrictive dialogue between Taipei and Washington has suffered in recent years. The US has made commitments to both Taiwan and China. Changing those commitments would be difficult.
For one thing, Beijing has refused to accept any real dialogue with Taiwan unless the latter surrenders. And Taiwan -- especially since it became a democracy -- seeks high-level, open dialogue so that it can fully represent its people.
The US commitments to China include the need for normal relations to tackle a number of important issues of interest to both sides.
Washington's commitments to Taipei, for their part, stem from the need to recognize and support a nascent democracy. All in all, balancing those two sets of commitments and obligations has given rise to very complicated relations with Beijing and Taipei.
Later this year -- and before Taiwan holds its legislative and presidential elections -- China will be holding its National People's Congress. While the major focus at the congress will be on internal matters, the cross-strait issue will almost certainly arise as well, with inevitable repercussions for Taiwan. The US elections, on the other hand, will only be held in November next year, meaning that the current administration will still be in power once the congress and Taiwan's elections have been held.
With its priorities elsewhere, the US is in a weakened position to address East Asian matters. Whatever it wants to achieve on the cross-strait issue will have to focus on China's interests and on domestic developments in Taiwan which could have an impact on the US.
The divide separating Taiwanese who seek independence and those who favor annexation with China has sharpened over the years and this gap is likely to widen as the elections approach.
At the same time, the division within the US government between long-held values and security has also widened.
Ultimately, the two political sides in Taiwan seek long-term objectives that could both pose problems for Washington -- independence or economic integration with eventual annexation.
The US must find the political will to become more involved and should try to find ways by which it can more efficiently discuss developments in the Strait with its Taiwanese counterparts.
Taipei and Washington must hold frequent bilateral talks -- not through single envoys or from time to time, but rather on a regular basis. Both should bolster their representative offices to provide policymakers back home better information upon which to develop their policies.
The present system of US-Taiwan relations began some 27 years ago. Back then, the two enjoyed close relations. When, years later, Taiwan turned into a democracy, the expectations were that the relationship would only become even closer.
A quick glance at TV and newspapers in Taiwan suffices to demonstrate how things have changed. Discussions on Taiwan-US relations, though still friendly, have become more open, as should be expected of a free, democratic country. In this regard, Taiwan has become one of the most vibrant democracies out there.
At the same time, US interests have changed, as it faces a different set of problems. Despite its preference for a peaceful resolution in the cross-strait conflict, the truth of the matter is that relations between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated.
Given this reality and without a change in policy, the US could soon be seen to be complicit in Beijing's suppression of Taiwanese democracy.
While China has been building its economy and military, Taiwan has established one of the strongest democracies in East Asia. During this time, however, there has been little change in the US policy regarding Taiwan.
There was an effort to change this during 1993 and 1994, when the US seemed to understand that democracies such as Taiwan needed more support. Since then, however, Washington seems to have given more weight to strengthening its ties with China.
It took the missile crisis of 1996 to prompt change in the military relationship. Military-to-military communication between Taiwan and the US has continued to grow, but for political reasons the quality of diplomatic channels has deteriorated.
Will it take another crisis similar to that of 1996 before we see a warmer diplomatic relationship develop anew?
In all, from now until 2009 and given everything that will happen in between, we can expect the US-Taiwan relationship to be a highly complex one. As such, failure by these two countries to establish constructive dialogue mechanisms could give rise to serious problems.
Before crisis hits, routine meetings at the governmental level -- or, if needed, between officials who have taken temporary leave of their official positions in office -- should be held so that concerns and opportunities can be thoroughly discussed.
Doing so is in the US' interest, Taiwan's interest -- and even in China's interest. What is not in the US' interest is to continue to allow Beijing to determine the nature of the US-Taiwan relationship.
Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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