A quip here goes: "Independence is something you can do but you can't say; unification is something you can say but you can't do."
On this island of 23 million people, such ambiguity is the way Taiwan manages to "live with China" - the mainland government that ardently wants Taiwan back.
Take current White House wrestlings over the Aegis defense radar system. The April 24 decision on a possible sale to Taiwan - which Beijing opposes - looms large after the US-China plane-collision standoff. Playing it safe, Taiwan's foreign minister says now, "It won't be the end of the world" if the Aegis is not procured. At about the same time, the vice defense minister urged the US to sell the anti-missile system and let Taiwan install it, speeding its use.
US policy here is described as "strategic ambiguity," keeping both sides guessing. Such a policy plays into a national character in a place where answers are often phrased as "maybe yes," "maybe no," and "maybe maybe."
The verbal culture of indirection here often seems the ultimate game of "Who's on First?" Words like "sovereignty," "independence," "integrate," "separate," "unify" are parsed with precision by politicians and construction workers alike.
Underneath lies the question: Will the island become more independent, or gravitate toward unification with China? Beijing states unambiguously that it will have "no choice" but to attack Taiwan if its leaders declare independence.
Ask people on Taipei streets if they are Chinese, and they say "Yes" - meaning that they are ethnic Chinese. Ask, are you part of China? and they mostly say "No! We are Taiwanese." Does that mean you are independent? "Um, no." So if you are not independent, what are you? "We actually are independent, but we aren't sure about the future. What if we have to unify with China?"
"Living here is like the Mad Hatter scene in Alice in Wonderland," says a US executive. "Nothing can be said by its name."
Chief government spokesman Su Tzen-ping says: "We don't say we are independent. Our view is that we are already independent, so we don't have to declare our independence."
President Chen Shui-bian, whose party is pro-independence - even if he backs off that position as head of state - often does simultaneous two-steps. Mr. Chen wants to please constituents, while also accommodating a strong new impulse among Taiwan's businesspeople to increase trade with China.
Chen's published text in a recent speech read: "I was elected the president of the Republic of China" - the name given decades ago to Taiwan under its former nationalist government. But when Chen delivered the speech, he said, "I am the president of Taiwan" - a formula that drives Beijing into a dither. Chen spent two weeks explaining what he meant.
Then there are Chen's recent comments that Taiwan is "integrating" with China. This bothered pro-independence Taiwanese. The next day Chen said: "Integration can mean whatever you want it to. I would prefer that everyone ascribe their own meaning to 'integrate.' "
"This is a distorted reality," says Tim Ting of the Gallup Organization in Taipei. "We are day to day getting closer to China economically, but further away politically. And the military situation is threatening."
"I don't talk about politics with my really best friends," says a young woman from Taipei Teachers College, who gives her name as Sarah. "We might find out we have different views, and that would spoil everything."
Polls show, not surprisingly, that Taiwanese are still uncertain about what they want. A Taiwanese identity movement has grown rapidly during the 1990s. But it is still not mature.
After Saudi Arabia, Taiwan is the largest purchaser of arms in the world. Taiwan's military brass point out that increased deployment of Chinese missiles across the 90-mile-wide strait separating Taiwan and China make the Aegis, a sophisticated missile- alert and tracking system, necessary. China opposes the sale since the Aegis system in its most advanced capacity could rely on a network of US satellites and computer systems. China, suspicious of US "hegemonic" intentions in the region, and desirous of establishing its own regional preeminence, does not want Taiwan further tied to US security systems.
Indeed, a number of analysts here worry privately that passions created by the recent US-China standoff are not the best foundation for a sale that was likely to provoke the Chinese military in any event. The Aegis-equipped destroyer would not be available for eight years, and there are questions whether Taiwan's military can even absorb the complex Aegis on an accelerated schedule.
Roots of the US "One China policy" date to 1972. Former President Nixon, along with then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, sought in part to enlist China's aid to end the Vietnam War by giving China something it wanted: Taiwan. Mr. Nixon did not get much help from China on Vietnam. But the US finally did withdraw troops from Taiwan, stunning the island's leaders. Even today, most Taiwanese can tell you just where they were when they heard of the US withdrawal.
America's current policy of "strategic ambiguity" is built on the idea that it is healthy for both China and Taiwan to guess how far the US will go to defend Taiwan. Columbia University China expert Andrew Nathan wrote recently: "The problem [for the US] is to create sufficient uncertainty about one's future actions so as to make it unappealing for the other party to trigger them, but not to create so much certainty that the other side knows just how far it can go without risking a response."
The next test of the formula comes Wednesday, when the US and China meet over the status of the US EP-3E surveillance plane held since April 1, and China's request that the US stop its "spy missions."
Is Secretary of State Colin Powell's warning - that advanced weapons systems may be sold to Taiwan if Beijing continues blame the US for the air collision - part of "strategic ambiguity"?
Most Taiwanese understand the state of affairs. Many feel that the US, while not drawing down its presence any time soon in East Asia, will nonetheless not be around indefinitely.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor