The pan-blue camp calls the US transit incident a major diplomatic failure. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) says that the US is separating its Taiwan policy from its treatment of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), and that the incident will therefore not affect US-Taiwan relations. Chen himself says that the US' decision was not aimed at him alone, but at Taiwan, since the president represents the nation and is a symbol of its sovereignty.
These three interpretations are contradictory, but the odd thing is that they are all correct. Chen's interpretation is the most complete -- it analyzes the situation by stating a reason and by dividing US-Taiwan diplomacy into "practical" and "official" diplomacy.
The practical aspect of US-Taiwan diplomacy consists of the US' continued abidance by the Taiwan Relations Act and treatment of Taiwan, with which it has no diplomatic ties, as a country. It also maintains thriving economic relations with Taiwan and treats it politically as a partner sharing its democratic values and militarily as a partner helping it prevent China's military expansion in the Pacific.
The official aspect of US-Taiwan diplomacy consists of the US not recognizing Taiwan as a de jure independent and sovereign state. During the rule of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (
When Lee was president, changes to the international situation meant that the US no longer took such a strict approach toward non-recognition of Taiwan, allowing Lee to visit Cornell University, his alma mater, and thereby opening the way for Chen's transit diplomacy. The improvements signified by these adjustments, the mutual resumption of official visits, and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) being given consular powers may not have restored official diplomatic ties, but there is no question about the semi-official status of the US-Taiwan relationship.
Starting in 2003, Chen began messing up Taiwan's relationship with the US, and the US has had problems deciding how to retaliate. With the unchanging situation in East Asia, any retaliatory policy against Taiwan is certain to have a negative impact on US national interests.
If it doesn't retaliate, however, the US is afraid that Chen will inflate his own importance and feel secure due to shared US and Taiwanese interests. As a result, the US must separate its Taiwan policy from its retaliation against Chen in order to hurt Taiwan as little as possible, while hitting Chen where it hurts most.
After Chen upset the Americans by holding a referendum in 2003, I used this reasoning to predict that the US would take some action in connection to Chen's transits through the US, an issue that matters to Chen. This is also what happened when the US in 2004 tightened conditions for stopovers, and then again this time in the wake of the National Unification Council (NUC) issue.
Since the reception the US gives during transit stopovers forms part of a semi-official relationship, Washington felt that downgrading the reception would not bring substantial harm to the US-Taiwan relationship. In other words, both Chen and Lee are correct when they say that the bilateral relationship has not changed.
Downgrading the treatment, however, also means downgrading Taiwan's semi-official status, and that is why the pan-blue camp describes it as a great setback. And when Chen says that the US struck not only at him as a person, but also at the symbol of Taiwan's sovereignty, he is also right.
The problem with the pan-blue camp's criticism, however, is that it contradicts their past statements, since the blue camp has all along subscribed to the importance of the practical aspect of diplomacy and claimed that the official aspect -- symbolizing Taiwan's independence -- is unimportant. When they jump up and down in anger over this diplomatic slight, they in fact jump all the way into the pro-independence camp.
The downgrading of Taiwan's semi-official status of course implies that Taiwan is still a long way from an official relationship with the US and, of course, even further away from de jure independence under international law.
It is not very strange, then, that although Lee called for restraint for the sake of the nation, Taiwan independence fundamentalists ran to the AIT to protest.
In addition, this incident has highlighted the difficult situation that independence fundamentalists are in. Chen met their demands and, after the cessation of the NUC and its guidelines, DPP Chairman Yu Shyi-kun initiated a call for constitutional re-engineering and a change to the nation's title in an attempt to achieve de jure independence.
Unexpectedly, however, the US' reaction means that we are now even further away from internationally recognized de jure independence.
Chen also finds himself in a difficult situation. He says that he refused to transit through the US because national dignity cannot be diminished.
If this is so, it is indeed true that the reception offered by the US was rude. But when comparing the reception accorded to him during his "glorious visit" to New York in 2003 to that offered to other heads of state, national dignity was significantly diminished, and almost disgraced. The treatment couldn't even compare to that accorded visiting ministers and their wives.
Compared with the treatment on offer this time, not much more was provided in the way of protecting national dignity.
Based on the concern for national dignity, then, Chen should not brag about his reception in New York in 2003, but rather say that he felt slightly humiliated and very dissatisfied, but that it was endurable for the sake of the nation since some progress was made.
Because national dignity has been slighted, Chen can leave behind his transit diplomacy and concentrate on domestic issues. Meanwhile, opposition and government politicians can continue to engage in their logic-deprived free-for-all.
It is a tragedy that the leaders the public must rely on have sunk so low.
Lin Cho-shui is a Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Perry Svensson