Ow! Taiwan Causes Two Superpower Headaches

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Just when you thought U.S.-China relations couldn’t get any worse, Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui is picking a fight with the mainland over what is perhaps the most fundamentally contentious issue between Beijing and Washington: the so-called "One China" policy. "One China" is the security blanket by which Taiwan, China and the U.S. have been getting along with each other since Nixon was out that way in 1972. In it, the communists in Beijing and the democratic nationalists in Taipei maintain the fiction that each is eventually going to rule the other, with a nod and a wink from Washington. Now Lee seems intent on giving that blanket a good shredding. After making a vague threat over the weekend that Beijing-Taipei relations would now be "nation-to-nation," Lee confirmed the policy break Tuesday through a top government official. China’s reaction was predictable — immediate and furious — and now it’s up to the U.S. (which doesn't want to have to choose sides) to hope it all blows over.

Which it very well could. "For China, bringing Taiwan back under its control, like Hong Kong, has always been a long-term goal, as in 50 or 100 years from now," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "But Beijing doesn’t want Taiwan making any moves either." The move itself may have been no more than local politics; Lee has a presidential election coming up, and independence is a potent issue at home. But trouble is trouble, and when Lee made similar noises in 1996 (for his previous election bid) the U.S. sent warships to the region after China shot a handful missiles into the ocean just off Taiwan’s shore. For now, the U.S. seems prepared to let Lee have his fun without joining in — especially in the middle of talks over the Chinese embassy bombing. The State Department quickly declared that the "One China" stopgap was still on. "This is tricky for the U.S.," says Dowell. "They want to support Taiwan’s democratic government and capitalist economy, but this is so dear to China’s heart that jumping in would be very bad for relations." To calm them down, the U.S. might send the communists a reassuring reminder of some truths about democracies: Leaders and their policies change often, and election-year rhetoric is almost always meaningless.