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Home > East Asia > 

US words reflect long-term change
Paul Lin
5/29/2004

Taiwan-US relations have once again grabbed media attention. Yet contrary to some reports, recent remarks by US officials were not aimed at dissuading President Chen Shui-bian from claiming Taiwan independence upon
his re-election.

Instead, these remarks were made in a particular context: a US congressional hearing on the Taiwan Relations Act's (TRA) first 25 years, an occasion where US officials had to address this complex issue. Several seminars on these issues were also held at around the same time, thereby heating up the topic.

Yet these remarks represented no change in the underlying Taiwan-US relationship. The State Department attaches more importance to the practical interests of the US, while the Congress stresses US popular sentiment. Despite different views taken by the State Department and the Pentagon, the difference is not yet huge in general.

The hearing was held just after the presidential election. The US was concerned with the decision to hold referendums before the election. After the election, there were rumors surrounding American Institute in Taiwan Chairwoman Therese Shaheen's resignation. These factors complicated Taiwan-US relations, but much more important changes in cross-strait relations have taken place over 25 years.

These changes include Beijing's leadership reshuffle last year and Taiwan's elections, but also China's greater flexibility on anti-terrorism efforts and economic issues, a policy intended to rope in the US to act against Taiwan. China has accelerated its military preparations against Taiwan and used these to intimidate the US. And Taiwan has deepened its democracy and increased its national consciousness and resistance to the idea of "one China."

In light of these changes, both officials and academics naturally have developed new perspectives on the cross-strait relationship.

Washington now understands that it would not be able to keep out of a war if China attacks Taiwan. Worried that Beijing may react irrationally to Taiwan's proposals for referendums and a new constitution, the Bush administration needs to repeatedly remind Taiwan, sometimes with harsh rhetoric, of the risks that accompany these actions.

Yet the US also increases its arms sales and military cooperation with Taiwan in view of China's growing military threat. Military expert Richard Fisher even suggested that Washington sell offensive weapons to Taiwan as one concrete measure to deter Chinese military operations against Taiwan. The US also strengthened its military deployment in the Pacific, reaffirming the Taiwan Relations Act.

Beijing insists that the three joint communiques it signed with the US govern Sino-US relations. The Chinese overnment interprets the US understanding of one China as a recognition of one China, and its stance of not upporting Taiwan independence as opposition to it. Because of his understanding of Beijing's arbitrary thuggishness, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia James Kelly was denying Beijing's monopoly on interpreting cross-strait relations, recognizing that China could
attack Taiwan simply because it says Taiwan is declaring independence. Beijing's interpretation of the status quo is different from that of the US and Taiwan. China not only steps up war preparations to alter the status quo
but also actively uses propaganda to achieve reunification.

Taiwan's democratization challenges the three communiques signed by Washington and Beijing. The Shanghai Communique signed in 1972 stated that "the US acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China." But
how could all Chinese express their views when both sides still endured authoritarian regimes? At least since Taiwan's democratization, many Taiwanese do not identify themselves as Chinese, nor do they recognize Taiwan as part of "one China."

During his visit to Singapore, US Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Daley said that Washington does not oppose Taiwan or China changing the status quo, but any change has to be peaceful and requires the consent of both sides.

People in Taiwan can express their consent or disapproval in referendums. But China is not allowed to change the status quo before the mechanism of referendums is made available to Chinese people. Therefore, the US should warn China against attacking Taiwan as well as seeking rapid political unification.

Provided that the US can base its new decisions on the new circumstances, the US spirit can truly prosper in the world and the long-term instability in the Taiwan Strait can be resolved.

Paul Lin is a commentator based in New York.

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