President Bush has pledged to do "whatever it took" to defend Taiwan if that thriving island democracy were attacked by China. Yet critics say the United States continues to treat Taiwan in a shabby and embarrassing manner.
A just-released study by the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cites numerous examples of what it calls "petty and humiliating restrictions" that the US puts on Taiwan.
The constraints are all the more notable, analysts say, since American troops may someday be required to defend Taiwan's 23 million people against a military attack by China.
The restrictions are just one aspect of America's tangled relationships with Taiwan and China, under new scrutiny after China refused to quickly return a top secret US EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft that made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island.
China has now agreed to let the US inspect the plane, a Chinese news agency reported yesterday. The agency also said the US has agreed to consider making a payment to China.
In his weekly radio broadcast on Saturday, Mr. Bush described US-China relations as "maturing" and conceded: "There will be areas where we can agree, like trade; and areas where we won't agree - Taiwan, human rights, religious liberty."
The White House let it be known that despite such areas of dispute, the president plans to go ahead with his scheduled trip to China in October.
Yet the growing restiveness in Congress over China's actions, including its aggressive buildup of ballistic missiles along the Taiwan Strait, prompted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to reexamine Taiwan's precarious status and the US role there. The staff report also questioned the unusual restrictions the US places on Taiwan, such as:
* Requiring Taiwan military personnel to wear only civilian clothing while training in the US.
* Forbidding Taiwan diplomats to fly their flag over their official building in Washington.
* Refusing to grant access for Taiwan's military to US submarines even though military personnel from communist China were permitted aboard.
* Prohibiting any US official to set foot on Twin Oaks, the Taiwan government's historic estate in northwest Washington.
* Forbidding Taiwan diplomats to use official diplomatic license plates in the US and calling its top official here "representative," not "ambassador."
There are other examples as well. For example, Taiwan Representative Chien Jen Chen says, "the State Department is still off limits. So we have to meet our friends from the State Department in neutral ground."
The limitations placed on Taiwan diplomats was one of the topics raised by several American reporters during a recent two-hour luncheon with Representative Chen at Twin Oaks.
Chen was diplomatic about the rules. "We know the United States has its considerations," he says. "We certainly would like to see all those guidelines be improved, [but] this is reality. This is not a perfect world.... We try to improve our relations gradually, incrementally, step by step.... It has improved ... quite a bit."
Politics of ambiguity
The rules governing relations with Taiwan reflect the uncomfortable ambiguity that dominates the political and military ties between Washington and Taipei. China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, and argues that any US help for Taiwan is interference in its internal affairs.
But US public support for Taiwan, with its freely elected government, remains powerful.
A recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP nationwide survey of 949 American adults found that by a margin of 38 percent to 29 percent, people said the US should help Taiwan militarily if it is attacked. The remaining one-third were unsure.
Defense analyst Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute in Washington says that American attitudes toward China appear to be hardening in the wake of the EP-3E standoff.
Previous presidents and congresses have attempted to deal with Taiwan with an approach called "strategic ambiguity." It is rooted in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 that calls for the US to provide Taiwan with help, though the type of help is left deliberately vague.
Critics charge that Bush went beyond the intentional ambiguity of his predecessors in the Oval Office in vowing to do whatever it takes to aid Taiwan.
Of Bush's statement on Taiwan, Chen says: "I personally feel he was sending a message that the United States really cares about the security of Taiwan." It wasn't necessarily a change of US policy, he says. It may reflect that Bush is being "firmer" with China in light of its military buildup.
The 'porcupine' strategy
Mr. Carpenter says the time has come to shift away from ambiguity. He advocates a "porcupine" strategy that provides Taiwan with whatever military "quills" it needs to fend off China.
He suggests that the president is "moving in that direction" with his approval of the sale of the eight submarines, 12 Orion P-3 sub-hunter airplanes, and four Kidd-class destroyers to Taiwan.
Carpenter would have gone further - selling Taiwan Aegis-equipped destroyers to counter the Chinese missile threat and HARM (high-speed anti-radiation) missiles to take out Chinese antiaircraft batteries.
With a porcupine strategy, he says, "you simply have to raise the cost of [Chinese] military action to such a high level that it heads off the initial attack. That is much more reliable than some paper US security guarantee."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor