The Bush administration has gone fromone extreme to the other with regard to U.S.policy on Taiwan. During the early monthsof his administration, the president gave aseemingly unconditional pledge to defendTaiwan from attack by mainland China--going significantly further than his predecessorshad. He followed that assurance byapproving the largest arms sales package toTaiwan in nearly a decade. In marked contrastto the Clinton years, high-profile visitsby Taiwanese leaders to the United Stateshave been encouraged, despite Beijing'sprotests.
That pro-Taiwan stance appeared tochange dramatically in December 2003during a visit by Chinese premier WenJiabao. President Bush publicly admonishedTaiwanese president Chen Shuibianfor seeking to change the political status ofthe island unilaterally and emphasizedWashington's opposition to any unilateralactions. At issue is the Taiwanese government'sintent to hold referenda on sensitiveissues, which Beijing believes is the latestinstallment in an ongoing campaign toachieve independence.
Neither the earlier pro-Taiwan policynor the latest pro-Beijing posture serves thebest interests of the United States. It is notAmerica's proper role to take a position onTaiwan's independence or other issuesinvolving relations between Taipei andBeijing. Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, andthe United States should respect that society'sdemocratic prerogatives. At the sametime, U.S. leaders should make it clear thatTaiwan must bear all of the risks entailed inwhatever policies it adopts. In particular,Washington should state that it will notintervene if an armed conflict breaks outbetween Taiwan and mainland China.