The leaders of the US and Taiwan appear to be caught in a negative spiral at which Beijing can only smile.
Recent blunt exchanges aimed at defending or opposing referendums advocating that Taiwan seek membership in the UN under the name "Taiwan" or "Republic of China" are the latest manifestation of a troubling long-term trend. Notions of sovereignty, independence, leadership and respect fill the airwaves. The Taiwanese people and their leaders face myriad pressures from China -- economic, military, diplomatic and even in their domestic politics.
On top of that is pressure from Washington, which is urging patience -- and in many cases -- inaction, as a sizable segment of Taiwan's population demands that its elected leaders push back against the tide.
In Washington there is a widespread sense of annoyance with Taiwan, which is perceived to be pushing issues known to create tension with Beijing at a time when the US is preoccupied elsewhere and working with Beijing to manage denuclearization of North Korea.
In Taiwan there is a sense of abandonment -- that the Bush doctrine does not apply to China and Taiwan, that the US is looking for ways to qualify its commitment to Taiwan's defense and that Washington is colluding with Beijing in ways that hold back the aspirations of the Taiwanese people.
There is also a perception that Washington does not trust the people of Taiwan or respect the democratic processes at work there -- which, like most democracies, at times are noisy and fail to deliver results.
The diagnosis of these problems is not complicated, but a prescription to get out of this negative spiral is quite difficult.
The circumstances that led the Bush administration to adopt what is seen as an increasingly negative approach to Taiwan show no signs of changing for the remainder of US President George W. Bush's term in office.
Similarly, given the widespread support across political parties in Taiwan for a vote expressing strong popular sentiment against international isolation, there is no doubt that plans for a referendum will proceed no matter what Washington says or does.
The seeming lack of creativity and flexibility on both sides to find common ground or alternative approaches is disappointing and has long-term implications.
Taiwan cannot afford to be passive and wait for the US to finish what is often called a "long war" or "generational challenge" against the forces of radicalism in the Muslim world.
China is not being passive as the war on terror is waged and one has to imagine that the imbalance of power in the Taiwan Strait will be overwhelming in less than a generation -- sooner if Taiwan is passive.
The US has not effectively engaged the forces driving decisions in Taiwan's democracy, in part because it does not feel it should have to.
Instead the US has opted to seek commitments from the "leader of Taiwan" that he is to then impose on his electorate by "exercising leadership."
While this is not the impression the US seeks to convey, it is not far from the mark in describing the attitude driving the US' approach. Needless to say, this does not go over well in Taipei, but more importantly it does not produce the result the US says it seeks.
Taiwanese leaders share responsibility for the negative spiral in relations with the US. Chinese Nationlist Party (KMT) leaders polarized Taiwanese politics by rejecting election outcomes, shaking hands with the Chinese Communist Party but not President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and stalling high-profile defense procurements for years.