Mainland Affairs Council chairman Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) received an apparent frosty reception by some US China experts as she began a round of speeches to Washington think tanks on cross-Strait relations during a visit that began Thursday.
Tsai is in Washington to try to explain President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) policies toward cross-Strait issues, but sharp questions about Chen's plans for a referendum and a new constitution seemed to overshadow the messages on Taiwan-China relations that Tsai brought with her to convey to the US scholars and policymakers.
Tsai spoke to an assembly of specialists in a closed-door meeting sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies Thursday, the first such encounter in her trip.
While the session was closed to press coverage and was off the record, participants gave the Taipei Times a rundown on what took place in the two-hour session after it was over.
During introductory remarks, academics at the conference "hit her with heavy questions about, `Do you guys really know what you're doing? You seem to be running around here on the edge of a cliff,'" one participant quoted them as saying.
"They laid out some fairly stiffly worded comments. The tone was, `look, you guys are really pushing the envelope hard here. [The US] is in the middle of an attempt to keep a lot of balls juggled, and do you know how complicated and difficult you're making life for us?'" the participant quoted them as saying.
The conference's hosts said that "things are very bad, what Taiwan is doing is in effect provocative, and that the United States is the one that's going to have to pay for it," another participant said.
Tsai's reaction, according to participants, was "we are not stupid, and will not do something that will cause problems. She gave a soothing speech," one participant recalled.
Tsai declined to discuss US-Taiwan relations or US-China relations, saying she was there to discuss only Taiwan-China relations. She emphasized at the meeting that a new constitution was needed to deepen Taiwan's democracy, focusing on how the current constitution's inefficiencies, with multiple layers of government and unclear powers create not only a "lack of democracy" but also hurt Taiwan's economy as well.
Tsai repeated Chen's commitment to his inaugural pledge of the four-noes-plus-one, and stressed that the new constitution would not change the name of the Republic of China or deal with questions of independence or unification, or otherwise affect Taiwan's international status quo.
While the main thrust of her visit is to meet with think tanks, Tsai is also expected to meet with some US officials during her visit.
Neither the Taipei Economic and Cultural Relations Office, Tsai nor the US government would confirm any meetings, although the State Department appeared to confirm that some meetings had been planned.
Referring queries about any such meetings to TECO, a State Department spokeswoman would say only that "we meet from time to time with Taiwan representatives, but do not provide details regarding these contacts."
That verbal formula is the standard answer given to reporters when meetings between Taiwan and US officials are, in fact, held.