If you are puzzled by what is known as the "one China" policy, please take a number -- a very high number -- and go stand in a long, long line.
Put another way, if you were to put five people in a room and ask them to define the "one China" policy, when they came out you would get eight different answers.
As the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which is respected for its non-partisan, even-handed assessments, said in a recent report, the "one China" policy remains "somewhat ambiguous and subject to different interpretations."
Although the debate over the "one China" policy among Chinese, Taiwanese and various US factions sometimes takes on theological overtones worthy of Jesuit or Talmudic scholars, it is a serious issue in which one misstep could lead to war.
Adding to the confusion has been the US policy of "strategic ambiguity." It is intended to keep the Chinese and Taiwanese guessing as to what the US would do if China attacked Taiwan. Unhappily, strategic ambiguity has confused both of them, the US people and just about everyone else.
In sum, the "one China" policy and "strategic ambiguity" have made an inherently unstable confrontation across the Taiwan Strait all the more susceptible to miscalculation, which down through history has been the greatest cause of war.
Perhaps it is time for the administration of US President George W. Bush to fashion a policy of: (a) strategic clarity, in which the US would set out explicitly its objectives in the confrontation between China and Taiwan; (b) tactical ambiguity, in which the US would declare that it would respond to threats to the peace in a political, economic and military manner of its own choosing and timing.
The US would dump the "one China" policy in favor of asserting that the ultimate resolution of the Taiwan question would be governed by the honored principle of self-determination.
The new policy would insist that the Taiwanese be allowed to decide on the nation's status.
They would also be entitled to determine when they would decide. The people of Taiwan would be permitted to tell China, the US and everyone else to leave them alone.
Two studies of the "one China" policy have contributed thoughtful assessments to this debate. The CRS publication, China/Taiwan: Evolution of the One China Policy, was published in July. The other was an address at Harvard University last month by Alan Romberg, a former diplomat and China specialist at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a US think tank.
In its study, the CRS says: "The `one China' policy has evolved to cover three issue areas: sovereignty, use of force, and cross-strait dialogue."
It then lays out the turns through which each has passed over the last half-century.
"Apart from questions about what the `one China' policy entails, issues have arisen about whether U.S. presidents have stated clear positions and have changed or should change policy affecting U.S. interests in stability and democracy," the CRS says.
Romberg asserts: "Fundamentally, the United States has taken the position that it does not have the right to determine this issue. At the end of the day, this is `their' issue, not ours, and it should be decided by the people on both sides of the Strait."
Romberg contends: "There is no sound reason to alter or abandon our `one China' policy."