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."
However, academics warned against dependency on Washington, saying that no matter how sympathetic the Bush administration, the US presence in the region continues to be rooted in self-interest.
"I don't think US policy really cares if Taiwan is sovereign or not. The US is concerned about peace and security in the region," Tsang said.
"The US wants to avoid a confrontation between China and Taiwan that would draw in the US or at least put it in a difficult position. The US is concerned about keeping Taiwan democratic as long as China is not," he said. "If China becomes a genuine democracy, whether Taiwan or China get together -- the US will not be bothered by that."
Lieberthal reiterated that Bush's future policies will inevitably be shaped by political developments across the Taiwan Strait.
"I don't think that President Bush is seeking to get tougher and tougher on Taiwan but I think he is very concerned that Taiwan fully understand not only the kind of support America gives to Taiwan but also the parameters of that support," Lieberthal said.
Yan Jiann-fa (顏建發), the vice chairman of the foreign ministry's Research and Planning Committee, expressed similar sentiments.
"Taiwan has undergone transfer of power in the Presidential Office, Chinese leader Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) has consolidated political power, and Bush has captured his second term -- leaders on all corners of the triangle are free of certain burdens ? Policies will become clearer with time, but if they are not handled properly, antagonism could result," Yan said.
He point to Taiwan's constitutional engineering in 2006 and China's unification law as sensitive future projects.
Tsang, however, questioned whether a sympathetic US administration was necessarily better for Taiwan.
"Is it really all that fantastically good if a second Bush administration is good for the ruling party and government?" Tsang said.
He said that the increased room for interpretation under a more sympathetic Bush administration also meant a higher likelihood that Taiwan will "hit the straw that breaks the camel's back," irrevocably overstepping China's tolerance in an act of miscalculation.
"A Kerry administration would come down so hard on the administration here. It would be so blatantly against the administration here that I don't think Taipei would try anything scoundrelly," Tsang said.