The Bush administration on Wednesday moved to quell concerns over remarks earlier in the week by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage by saying that he had simply reiterated existing Taiwan policy in different language.
But Armitage's statement that the US was not legally bound to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack has prompted a frenzied round of speculation among China watchers and Taiwan supporters in the US capital.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said all Armitage had done was to "restate US policy in very familiar terms."
But Boucher stopped short of saying that US policy toward Taiwan was unchanged, a normal mantra the department repeats when questioned about comments made by senior officials that appear inconsistent with administration policy.
Meanwhile, China and Taiwan specialists in Washington appear divided on the implications of Armitage's remarks.
During an interview on Monday on the PBS network, Armitage said that the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) did not require the US to defend Taiwan in case of Chinese military action, and that it only committed Washington to sell defensive arms to Taiwan and maintain sufficient force to deter a Chinese attack.
"We are not required to defend," he said.
He also stated that the decision to defend Taiwan rests not with the administration, but with Congress, and said Taiwan was emerging as a "landmine" in US-China relations,
Further, he said, "we all agree that there is but one China, and Taiwan is part of China."
The last remark reminded many observers of Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent statement that the US supported reunification of Taiwan with China, a statement Powell later distanced himself from.
However, several leading China watchers in the US say that Armitage's statements simply reflected reality and were a proper reading of the Taiwan Relations Act.
"It is a fact," said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on US-Taiwan-China relations.
"He didn't embellish US policy, he did not misstate US policy. He stated the facts," Glaser said.
"I don't think that this is an attempt to signal China that if Taiwan takes provocative action and you use force, that the US is not going to come to Taiwan's defense," she said.
For several months, some China specialists have speculated that the Bush administration has gone back on its earlier firm support of Taiwan, and now feels that the US is not committed to defend Taiwan against China under all circumstances.
Soon after taking office, Bush declared in an April 2001 TV interview that his administration would do "whatever it took" to help defend Taiwan.
That position was reiterated last December after Bush's White House meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), in which Bush publicly berated President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) for pushing an election-day referendum.
After the meeting with Wen, however, a high-level official told reporters that the "whatever it took" policy still stood.
And as recently as July, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Thomas Fargo, backed that stance when meeting top Chinese officials in Beijing.
Glaser said she was told as much by Chinese analysts during a visit to Beijing in August, shortly after Fargo's trip.
The administration has sent "clear signals" to the Chinese that "there is no circumstance to which it can use force and the US would look the other way ... that Washington would not tolerate any force by China," she said.