Whether US President George W. Bush's re-election is good news depends on who you ask. In Taiwan, most political observers would agree that another term with Bush in the White House bodes well for cross-strait relations. But few would deny that recent remarks made by US officials could indicate a tougher stance towards Taipei in the next four years.
There is a general consensus that the Bush administration has been one of the most sympathetic towards Taiwan, authorizing the largest arms sale package the US has ever offered, allowing public appearances for President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and other public figures during stopovers in the US, and supporting the nation's bid for representation in the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international organizations.
At the same time however, the beginnings of a shift in policy -- as evinced by recent comments by Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell -- have persuaded many observers that the next four years will not be as rosy.
In December, during Bush's news conference with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), the US leader reprimanded Chen, saying "the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally."
Bush was referring to Chen's calls for a referendum and reiterating the US' opposition to any unilateral changes to the status quo.
Remarks that Powell made during TV interviews last month came as a second blow and were described by Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Chen (陳唐山) as the "harshest ever."
Powell referred to "reunification" as an ultimate goal that both sides of the Strait sought, possibly a slip of the tongue, and also explicitly stated an official US policy that had hitherto been left unsaid -- "Taiwan does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation."
"What Powell said was not surprising in terms of policy, it was surprising as a policy not to be articulated but in this case articulated," said Steve Tsang (曾瑞生), director of the Asian Studies Center at St. Antony's College, Oxford University, pointing out that the remarks sent a clear message.
"[Bush's] tougher stance has been very clear in public statements ? I think this set of remarks accumulatively was designed to make as clear as the president could the parameters of the American position regarding Taiwan," Kenneth Lieberthal, former US National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs under former president Bill Clinton, told the Taipei Times during a telephone interview.
While the US govern-ment's position does not rule out a tougher stance on Taiwan in the next four years, Taiwanese officials view shifts in policy as the working of a political pendulum that occasionally swings in Taiwan's favor.
"Sometimes the US will have better ties with China and other times with Taiwan, but overall the general policy is consistent," Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said on Wednesday.
That policies will shift is inevitable. The question is whether US policies should be counted on to carry Taiwanese interest. It is clear that Taipei views Washington as a crucial player in the determination of the fate of cross-strait relations.
In Chen's congratulatory message to Bush, the weight Taiwan places on the US' role in cross-strait relations is apparent: The Republic of China "is willing to cooperate with the US government on an ongoing basis to safeguard regional peace and stability, while actively seeking dialogue with China."