Mon, Aug 27, 2007 - Page 8 News List

High-level US-Taiwan dialogue is necessary

By Liu Kuan-teh 劉冠德

As expected, the administration of US President George W. Bush took the opportunity to punish President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) during his transit in the US en route to the nation's diplomatic allies in Central America. The reason for this, without any doubt, lies in Chen's insistence on pushing for a referendum on using the name "Taiwan" to apply for membership in the UN.

Chen staged a "silent protest" against what he called "an uncomfortable and inconvenient" stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. Chen decided to meet American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) honorary chairman William Brown in his aircraft cabin instead of venturing into the airport VIP lounge.

Despite stressing its respect for Taiwan's democracy and people, there is a clear tendency from the Bush administration to separate them from Chen and his own political agenda. If this is the case, more punishment can be expected if Taipei and Washington fail to come up with a way to talk.

Punishing Chen while not defying the US' commitment to Taiwanese democracy constitutes the main element of such a strategy. The US seems to be looking forward to dealing with the next Taiwanese president -- ?hopefully someone the perceive as rational and cooperative.

In his conversation with Brown, Chen suggested Bush send a special envoy from either the State Department or the Department of Defense to engage in face-to-face dialogue with him in Taipei.

Such a scenario implies that the current channels of the AIT and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Washington do not function well. It also suggests that the US bureaucracy that handles affairs with Taiwan might be providing insufficient or prejudiced opinions on the real situation in Taiwan.

Direct talks with an envoy who can represent Bush will provide an arena for both sides to go into details and faithfully share bilateral concerns. The 2004 referendum and the wording of "ceasing the function of the National Unification Council" last year are two prominent examples of such up-close-and-personal dialogue.

There is no doubt that most people in Washington think Chen is a "trouble-maker." They see Chen's push for Taiwanese independence -- through holding a referendum, introducing a new constitution and listing the so-called "four wants and one without" -- as needless provocation of China. The US does not want to be dragged into cross-strait conflicts.

From the US viewpoint, Chen seems to be taking the country's assistance for granted. Washington increasingly sees Chen as an irresponsible politician who cares only about elections and fails to appreciate the difficulty of the US position.

The key miscommunications and misperceptions come largely from the timing and judgment of the rhetoric even if the underlying policies being adopted by the Chen administration are in line with its course toward democratic consolidation.

Therefore, what's important now is to seek an opportunity for direct and high-level dialogue between Taipei and Washington. There is still room for both sides to straighten things out or to come up with a mutually acceptable solution. Political punishment on transit treatment is not helpful for future talks.

Liu Kuan-teh is a Taipei-based political commentator.

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