The Bush administration has gone from one extreme to the other with regard to U.S. policy on Taiwan. During the early months of his administration, the president gave a seemingly unconditional pledge to defend Taiwan from attack by mainland China—going significantly further than his predecessors had. He followed that assurance by approving the largest arms sales package to Taiwan in nearly a decade. In marked contrast to the Clinton years, high-profile visits by Taiwanese leaders to the United States have been encouraged, despite Beijing’s protests.
That pro-Taiwan stance appeared to change dramatically in December 2003 during a visit by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. President Bush publicly admonished Taiwanese president Chen Shuibian for seeking to change the political status of the island unilaterally and emphasized Washington’s opposition to any unilateral actions. At issue is the Taiwanese government’s intent to hold referenda on sensitive issues, which Beijing believes is the latest installment in an ongoing campaign to achieve independence.
Neither the earlier pro-Taiwan policy nor the latest pro-Beijing posture serves the best interests of the United States. It is not America’s proper role to take a position on Taiwan’s independence or other issues involving relations between Taipei and Beijing. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, and the United States should respect that society’s democratic prerogatives. At the same time, U.S. leaders should make it clear that Taiwan must bear all of the risks entailed in whatever policies it adopts. In particular, Washington should state that it will not intervene if an armed conflict breaks out between Taiwan and mainland China.