Taiwan and China are gearing up for another season of escalating tensions that many, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, are calling a "high-risk period" for cross-strait relations.
Taipei's announcement Friday that the Olympic torch will not pass through Taiwan was one of the first major embarrassments for Beijing as it gears up for next August's Olympics.
Meanwhile, the island-nation's ruling party is pushing to join the United Nations under the name "Taiwan" – a bid the UN General Assembly rejected last Wednesday. But Taiwan plans to force the issue by holding a referendum that appears planned to help the party drum up nationalistic sentiment ahead of a presidential election next March. The US government, keen to avoid a conflict, has taken an unusually strong public stance against the vote, which officials see as a foolish provocation.
Taiwan's UN referendum may be timed for maximum political effect. But it's tapped a powerful current of Taiwanese national pride whose implications extend far beyond the next election. Beijing fears that nationalistic trend, and Washington has little sympathy for it, but in the coming years, both may well have to come to terms with it to avoid confrontation.
China sees the referendum as a step toward formal independence, which it's threatened to prevent by military force if necessary. The US, which has pledged to help defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, wants to nip any cross-strait spat in the bud. But the island's ruling party looks set to press ahead with the referendum in order to fire up supporters before they go to the polls in March.
The result won't likely be war, say analysts. But the UN push has already helped derail cross-strait talks on a range of issues, including the Olympic torch. And Washington and Beijing are concerned that the referendum could set the stage for an all-out independence push.
That's a reckoning both the US and China are keen to avoid. On Sept. 11, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen described Taiwan's UN gambit as "ill-conceived and potentially quite harmful," as well as a "needless provocation."
Meanwhile, the island's political logic means there's little prospect that it will back down. The ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is keen to hold on to power, and it's strongest when fighting on themes of Taiwanese identity. Indeed, the UN referendum issue has already helped it seize the initiative and set the agenda as the presidential campaign begins to heat up.
On the surface, Washington's stance puts it in an odd position: Joining with an authoritarian regime to oppose a democratic vote in Taiwan. But analysts say that's just realpolitik at work. The US may cast itself as the global champion of democratic values, but in East Asia, as elsewhere, it has more pressing strategic concerns. And Washington can ill afford to wage a war with an increasingly strong Chinese military.
"The US doesn't want any scope for miscalculation that would require American flyboys and sailors to go to that part of the world," says Steve Tsang, director of the Taiwan Studies Programme at Oxford University.
Taiwan is also a unique case: The US military is the ultimate security guarantor of the island's democratic choices. But the US is not bound to defend the island in all circumstances. The Taiwan Relations Act, a domestic US law, merely requires Washington to offer the island weaponry to defend itself and for the White House to notify Congress if hostilities break out.
Beyond that, any US administration is free to define the extent of its commitment to Taipei. Former US diplomat Chas Freeman perhaps says it best: Taiwan "does not have a blank check that it can fill out in American blood," he wrote in a 1996 New York Times editorial.
This time around, the Bush administration sees the UN referendum as a move by Taiwan to unilaterally change the cross-strait "status quo." What's more, Washington views the referendum's use of "Taiwan" as a violation of the spirit of President Chen Shui-bian's past pledges to the US not to change the country's name.
So it is putting Taipei on public notice that it can't rely on US military muscle to back up its latest push for greater recognition.
"I don't think the US is trying to intervene in Taiwan's democracy," says Andrew Yang, a security expert at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. "They are trying to emphasize that if you decide [to go ahead with the referendum], we will not be responsible for the consequences."
The result – whether coordinated or not – is something akin to a "good cop, bad cop" routine in which Washington and Beijing have joined ranks against Taipei. China rattles the saber, while the US tries to reason with its island ally.
Washington's public lectures have sparked indignation in Taipei. Chen Ming-tong, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, acknowledged that the UN bid had likely thrown a wrench in cross-strait talks on the Olympic torch and other issues. But he insisted that China's bullying disrespect for the Taiwanese people is ultimately to blame.
"The criticisms are unfair," says Mr. Chen. "Can you imagine, our people go to peacefully cast their vote to show their will to join the UN, and people say that will cause disaster? What kind of world is that?"