From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, cross-Straits relations experienced thawing and engagement, during which the negative impact of the US factor was greatly reduced.
Since the mid-1990s, however, with the growth of Taiwan independence forces and deceleration of cross-Straits political interaction, the importance of the US factor has again come to fore. The challenge posed by the US factor to the mainland's Taiwan policy at this critical juncture is reflected in the military "protection umbrella" provided to the forces of Taiwan independence.
In the past several years there have been two critical changes in the Bush administration's Taiwan policy.
First, the US pledge to observe and respect the one-China policy has become increasingly vague and empty.
Composed of related administrative regulations, legislation, promises made by its leaders and domestic agreements that are self-contradictory, Washington's one-China policy lacks clear definition. But one thing is clear: According to the Sino-US communiqué on establishing diplomatic relations, the US recognizes that the government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing China, and the US can only maintain economic, cultural and other unofficial relations with Taiwan.
However, since George W. Bush moved into the White House, the level and frequency of official exchanges between Washington and Taipei have been greatly upgraded, in particular in terms of military relations. In fact, the strengthening of the US-Taiwan military integration demonstrates a de facto military alliance has been formed.
Each time Washington has taken measures to upgrade its relations with Taiwan, it has never neglected to stress those measures did not violate its one-China policy. As a result, the content and meaning of one-China policy has become more flexible and empty. The US is actually promoting a policy of "one China, one Taiwan."
Second, the US has blatantly attempted to dominate the Taiwan question. During the late 1980s and early 1990s when a positive trend was discernible in cross-Straits ties, the US became worried about being marginalized. But in the following years both sides across the Straits increased their respective efforts to gain US support. The separatist forces in Taiwan need the political support and security protection to realize their political ambition. The mainland also needs the US to impose pressure on Taiwan to prevent Taiwan independence.
Consequently, Washington has been put in a very active position, which is being exploited by the US to pursue its own interests to the greatest possible extent.
When talking about the one-China policy, the Bush administration continuously emphasizes that its one-China policy differs from that of the Chinese side. When talking about opposition to any unilateral change of the status quo by any side across the Straits, the Bush administration stresses the "status quo" is the one defined by the US.
Given the volatility of the situation, the US is attempting to dominate the Taiwan question in an effort to affect policy of the two sides across the Straits, in particular, the mainland.
It seems the US will still adopt the policy of "dual containment," namely, to prevent the mainland from using force while preventing Taiwan from pursuing formal independence.
However, this policy is more an illusionary double standard than strategic balance.
On one hand, the US makes substantial efforts to prevent the Chinese mainland from using force. On the other hand, lacking substantial measures, the US "containment" of Taiwan independence is only reflected by verbal policy statements.
Though Chen Shui-bian has gone further on the road toward Taiwan independence, US-Taiwan political and military relations have become closer and the US has become increasingly adamant in proclaiming its willingness to assist Taiwan's defense. Washington's posturing on assisting Taiwan's defense and deterring the mainland will only encourage the separatists to make a reckless move.
Considering the new developments in Washington's Taiwan policy, China should keep a clear mind on the US factor.
First, the US will not oppose Taiwan independence substantially. The nature of the US Taiwan policy is to maintain separation across the Straits, which is in line with America's greatest interests. The US will not promote China's reunification, nor will it oppose Taiwan's de facto independence.
Second, the US will not take active measures to contain Taiwan. Washington's attitude toward Taiwan independence is to a certain extent dependent on the attitude of the mainland. Therefore, Beijing should relentlessly stress the sensitivity and seriousness of the Taiwan question to prevent Washington's try-your-luck mentality on the issue.
Past experience indicates that every time the US has compromised with the mainland on the Taiwan question, it always offers some "compensation" to Taiwan. This not only reduces the effect of the adjustment of the US policy but also contributes to enhancing US-Taiwan ties in other areas, which the mainland should be wary of.
Third, Beijing should always maintain independence in dealing with the Taiwan question to avoid being dominated by others.
The bottom line regarding the Taiwan question should be made by Beijing rather than Washington. When Beijing requires Washington to respond to the separatist remarks or moves by the Taiwan leaders, Washington could respond according to its own definition of Taiwan independence, which is narrow and symbolic. Under this circumstance, Beijing should, besides letting the US know its viewpoint, decide independently the measures against Taiwan.
When there appear remarks or moves challenging its bottom line, Beijing should neither use the reaction of the US to replace its own response nor be dominated by the US due to Beijing's need for Washington's cooperation. Maintaining independence and flexibility of reaction to Taiwan separatist activities helps to deter both the US and Taiwan.
Finally, Beijing should make a distinction between its policy goal on the Taiwan question and that of Washington.
According to some analysts, the Bush administration's statement of opposition to any unilateral change of the status quo at the Taiwan Straits by the mainland or Taiwan means the US has publicly defined its Taiwan policy goal as maintaining the status quo of separation between the two sides across the Straits. This status quo serves to maximize US interests.
However, the ultimate goal of China's Taiwan policy is to pursue the reunification of the nation. In the current period, the major mission of the mainland is to oppose Taiwan independence, which has a point in common with the US policy. This is the basis for limited cooperation between the mainland and US on the issue.
But Beijing must make it clear that the ultimate goal of its Taiwan policy is to end the state of separation and realize full national reunification. Washington's Taiwan policy, as it stands now, is therefore unacceptable.
(China Daily July 5, 2004)