When Chen Shui-bian visited America a year ago, he struggled with communication. A non-English-speaker, he had to rely on a translator, who was later criticized for not accurately interpreting what Mr. Chen meant to say.
Now Mr. Chen is the president-elect of Taiwan, and the United States is scrambling to win his ear - a task that is becoming increasingly important both for security in the Pacific and a looming congressional battle over US-China trade.
With China threatening military action if Taiwan does not move to reunify with the mainland, the stakes are high.
US officials are urging Chen to refrain from making the kind of pro-independence comments that are often expressed by his supporters.
But, because the US has long officially recognized "one China," it is unable to send a diplomatic envoy to
Taiwan - a complexity that underscores the calculated ambiguity of US policy.
Rather, Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, is expected to leave for Taipei March 22, as a "private citizen," according to an administration official. "In addition to being familiar with [President Clinton's] thinking, he's well acquainted with the views of senior members of Congress."
Likewise, US officials are trying to cool down the Chinese, who consider Mr. Chen to be more pro-independence than the candidates he ran against.
Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said March 21 that Beijing will "never hold any negotiations with any people and party that advocate Taiwan independence," according the state-run Chinese news agency.
Richard Holbrooke, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and Stanley Roth of the State Department arrived in Beijing March 19. Although tensions across the Taiwan Strait have been high in recent weeks, US officials tried to put a positive spin on the election aftermath.
"I think the statements that Mr. Chen has made in the last 24 or 48 hours have been conciliatory," said National Security Adviser Sandy Berger March 20 in Bangladesh. "The statements from the Chinese side have been, I think, measured. And I think this is a time to now seize upon the opportunity that exists to resume a dialogue between Taipei and Beijing."
Most immediately, US officials fear that an increase in tensions in the Taiwan Straits could sink efforts to permanently normalize trade relations with China. A vote on the topic, due this summer, is considered too close to call in the House of Representatives. Opponents of the measure are hesitant to reward China for human rights violations and aggressive behavior toward Taiwan.
If trade relations are not firmed up, China could have a rocky entrance into the World Trade Organization - if it joins at all. Bringing China into the WTO - and opening their market to American exports - is one of Clinton's most important foreign-policy objectives.
Perhaps weighing more heavily is the possibility of a military confrontation between China and Taiwan.
Pentagon officials doubt that the People's Liberation Army could successfully project power from the mainland and invade Taiwan. It is also considered unlikely that the Chinese would launch a missile attack against the island.
More likely, analysts say, is a scenario in which the Chinese use threats and military exercises to destabilize Taiwan. Already, Taiwan's stock market has plunged since the elections.
Regardless, the US would be in a difficult position if the Chinese advanced on Taiwan. The US does not have formal diplomatic or military ties, but it sells defensive military equipment to the island, and has pledged in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to oppose any coercive measures by Beijing.
Some analysts say that, given China's blunt talk and the pro-independence tilt of Taiwan's vote, the US should reaffirm its support for the island democracy.
The Tiawanese want to buy US-made destroyers that could help build a defensive missile shield around the island. The proposed purchase is being debated in the State Department.
According to Douglas Paal, a former National Security Council official who heads the Asia Pacific Policy Center here, the lack of direct military ties between the US and Taiwan limits US options in the event of a Chinese attack.
"Any Chinese military move would be designed to be over and done with before the US could respond," he says. Conflict was closest to breaking in 1996, before Taiwan's last elections, when China directed missiles near the island in a military exercise. The US sent two aircraft carrier groups to the region. Some analysts predict a similar face-off when Mr. Chen takes office May 20.
Col. Yang-Cheng Wang, a Taiwanese military officer now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Mr. Chen's confrontational nature could agitate the Chinese. And the US doesn't know him well.
"Establishing communication," he says, "is the most urgent thing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society