Experts take pulse of US policy on Taiwan
In 2001, a year after President George W. Bush came into office, he pledged to do whatever was needed to defend Taiwan.
It was the strongest-ever commitment by any American president to the Taiwan Relations Act passed in 1979.
Now, since President Bush's reelection, how the US Taiwan policy will develop in the next four years is undoubtedly among the hottest topics among Chinese researchers and scholars.
Several crucial issues that will have a great impact on the Beijing-Taipei-Washington interaction have drawn most attention:
Will the United States modify its deliberately blurred one-China policy and work out a clearer policy towards Taiwan?
Is it possible for Washington and Beijing to join efforts to fight Taipei's hard push for independence?
What will the United States do to balance the responsibilities it has to Beijing based on the three Sino-US communiques and the responsibilities it has to Taipei under US domestic law?
Professor Zhu Feng with the College of International Relations at Peking University forecasts a more pragmatic attitude from Washington on the Taiwan issue.
"Although we are not sure what exactly will happen in the coming four years, it is unlikely for the Bush administration to repeat what it did in 2001," he tells China Daily.
First of all, the professor says, better Sino-US relations will help both sides find common interests on the Taiwan issue.
Although President Bush abandoned the term of "strategic partnership" as put forward by his predecessor Bill Clinton to describe bilateral ties, the US side has claimed that relations with China are the best they have been since 1972.
Beijing and Washington have strengthened their co-operation on a host of issues ranging from the anti-terror war, security in the Korean Peninsula to nuclear weapons proliferation.
"Given that the United States needs more help from China, no one expects Washington to hold a hostile stance towards Beijing on the Taiwan issue," Zhu notes.
He goes further to explain that the worries about Beijing using force against Taiwan were the main reasons for Bush's firm statement of defending Taiwan.
"But since then the United States has come to realize that it is Taipei rather than Beijing that wants to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Straits," Zhu tells China Daily.
"So Washington has moved to turn its focus on discouraging Taiwan's pro-independence activities."
The professor adds that there has been a number of clues to a potential modification to Washington's Taiwan policy.
Last December, President Bush sent a stern warning to Taipei not to take any actions toward independence during his meeting with visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
"The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose," Bush said in the presence of Wen.
The president was responding to Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian's plan to promote the "defensive referendum" widely considered by both Beijing and Washington as a poll that could push Taiwan closer to independence.
Bush's comments were believed to be an explicit sign of Washington's dissatisfaction with Chen's attempt to press for formal Taiwan independence, which threatens to cause a military conflict in the Straits and undermine US interests.
The displeasure, however, did not end there. After Chen ignored Bush's warning to forge ahead with his pro-independence agenda, Washington finally dropped a heavier political bomb.
During a recent visit to Beijing, US Secretary of State Colin Powell issued comments denying that Taiwan is an independent nation and suggesting that the island should unify with the Chinese mainland.
"There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy," Powell told Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television during a visit to Beijing.
In an interview with CNN, Powell said he did not want to see either side "take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a reunification that all parties are seeking," according to a US State Department transcript of the interview.
His overture has apparently departed from Washington's strategically vague one-China policy as well as the usual US practice of urging both sides to peacefully resolve their differences without taking any stance on what the resolution should be.
Powell's remarks, described as a "diplomatic typhoon" in Taiwan, pounded Taiwanese officials and left the island in a state of shock.
Taiwanese "foreign minister" Mark Chen told lawmakers that Powell used "heavy language" that left "a deep impression" on Taiwan. He also complained that Washington didn't warn Taiwan that Powell would depart from its long-standing policy.
"They (America) hope that we'll try hard not to give them any surprises. They've really dropped an extremely big surprise on us," he said.
Some Taiwanese legislators even claimed the US move has signaled a distinct tilt towards the mainland in Washington's cross-Straits policies.
Although the island did manage to get explanations from US officials in both Washington and Taiwan, they did little to ease its intense worry.
"As far as Taiwanese sovereignty goes, again, there was - I don't think there was any new ground broken on that," said Adam Ereli, deputy spokesman of the US State Department, when asked to clarify Powell's remarks.
"The words the Secretary used accurately reflect our longstanding policy on Taiwan's status. And so, frankly, I think we are today where we were yesterday."
Ereli reaffirmed that the United States remains firmly committed to its one-China policy and does not support Taiwan independence.
Washington officially recognizes Beijing and acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China, but maintains unofficial relations with Taipei.
Professor Sun Zhe, deputy director of the Centre for American Studies at Shanghai-based Fudan University, says the US act was twofold.
On the one hand, Powell's comments were designed to demonstrate Washington's determination to oppose Taiwan independence and thus help ease Beijing's worries that the United States has thrown its weight behind pro-independence forces.
On the other hand, the overture of Powell served as a grave warning to separatist members in Taiwan.
"I think the United States has taken the opportunity to make clear its bottom line on the Taiwan issue when Mr Powell says Taiwan is not independent," Sun says.
"That means the United States will not allow the island to engage in Taiwan independence."
The professor notes that it is Taipei's accelerated bid for Taiwan independence that has promoted Washington to take the preventive move. From the US point of view, its biggest interests lies in keeping the cross-Straits status quo and Taipei's pursuit of independence obviously goes against US interests.
Taipei's separatist bid
After taking office in May 2000, Chen has been promoting a series of creeping pro-independence moves in a bid to alienate the island from China.
In August 2001, the Taiwan leader advocated that there is "one country at each side (of the Taiwan Straits)," triggering new tensions in cross-Straits ties.
Although Washington kept silent about Chen's radical moves at that time, it seemed to feel the danger of Taiwan's pro-independence campaign.
So when Chen continued to promote "referendum legislation" and then the "defensive referendum" late last year in a bid to provoke the Chinese mainland, the United States repeatedly expressed its grave concerns, followed by President Bush's blunt warning.
After Chen won his second term in May this year and announced the "constitutional re-engineering project" aimed at bringing a new "constitution" to the island by 2008, Washington began to worry that Taipei's separatist push might run out of control.
"The worry well explains why the United States has decided to let Powell warn against any further extreme pro-independence moves by Taipei," Sun says.
He says that although Powell's comments cannot be taken as a sure part of Washington's future cross-Straits policy, they do provide an indicator of its development.
"The basic policy has yet to be changed but it is safe to say the circumstance that affects the policy has already changed," the professor says.
"At least, Washington has showed more understanding about Beijing's stance on the Taiwan issue."
He confidently predicts that Beijing's determination to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity will be given more respect if the US side knows more about the significance of the Taiwan question to China.
After all, the United States itself once suffered from separatism in the Civil War (1861-65), which saw the deaths of more than 620,000 citizens, and has a political tradition of opposing national splits, according to Sun.
Xu Shiquan, vice-chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies, points to another positive development in the US policy, which states for the first time that any resolution of the Taiwan issue should be acceptable to both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.
"One element of our policy has been to favour a peaceful resolution of the Cross-Straits issue through dialogue and through a resolution that is acceptable to both sides," State Department spokesman Ereli said in October.
Xu says the new US overture contrasts with its usual line emphasizing only that any resolution should be agreed by the Taiwan people.
"I think it is really a progress (for the US side to clarify its stance) because the old overture failed to reflect the reality of the Taiwan issue," he told China Daily.
Because Washington acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China, it is a logical step for it to accept that any resolution of the Taiwan issue should be agreed upon by all people across the Straits.
Xu says the reason is the same as the logic that the people of one US state cannot determine a matter concerning the whole country.
"We hope that the US cross-Straits policy will become clearer and more pragmatic to benefit a final resolution of the Taiwan issue," the vice-chairman says.
In fact, a great number of countries in the world share the view that Taipei has no right to alter the status of Taiwan and declare formal independence.
The stance could not be demonstrated more clearly in a speech by Singapore's new Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
"If Taiwan goes for independence, Singapore will not recognize it. In fact, no Asian country will recognize it," said Lee in his first policy speech on August 22.
While expressing his deep worry over the growth of Taiwanese independence forces in Taiwan, the leader stressed that his nation will not support Taiwan if a conflict is provoked by Taiwan.
On August 21, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also said in Beijing that Australia has been urging Taiwan "not to move down the path of proclaiming independence, that this would create very substantial upheaval in the region."
Downer even warned that Australia would not automatically help the United States if US forces joined a war between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.
Despite all these positive developments, it is impractical to expect a drastic change in the US Taiwan policy that favours the Chinese mainland, says Jin Canrong, vice- president of the School of International Relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
He stresses that Washington will not easily drop its commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act and stop arms sales to the island.
In fact, Powell has reiterated the US obligation to make sure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself despite strong opposition from sChinese leaders.
Meanwhile, the island is planning to buy 610.8 billion new Taiwanese dollars (US$18.2 billion) worth of US-manufactured anti-missile systems, planes and submarines.
If approved by the "parliament," the arms deal - first offered by President Bush in 2001 - would be Taiwan's biggest purchase in a decade.
As for cross-Straits reunification as advocated by Powell in his interview with CNN, Jin says, it cannot be taken as an official policy of the US Government.
Actually, the State Department later changed the wording into the old US stance that it favours a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.
"We can only say Mr Powell made a personal judgment as an experienced politician with international vision when he said there should be a unification between Taiwan and the mainland," Jin says.
"There is still a long way to go for the United States to officially support a final reunification across the Taiwan Straits."