'Taiwan Leader's U.S. Visit Sends Beijing a Message'

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Clean sweep: President Chen Shui-bian helps tidy a street in Taiwan

TIME.com: Beijing is furious that Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian is visiting the U.S. and meeting with congressmen in New York. Is the fact that there are more official contacts with Chen a sign of a U.S. policy shift on Taiwan?

Jay Branegan: It's certainly being perceived as a change by Beijing. The U.S. in the past has tried to discourage activities by Taiwanese leaders in the U.S. The last time Chen was here, Washington advised him not to attend a reception some congressmen wanted to hold for him in California. Now, the new administration is saying it's useful and that it serves U.S. interests for members of congress to meet with the president of Taiwan.

This certainly reflects a more conservative administration, and also the greater influence of congressional conservatives over China policy. Remember, the Bush administration has to deal not only with China over its Taiwan policy, but also with groups in congress that would like more aggressive support of Taiwan. And, of course, this is also a reflection of the changed climate now that Taiwan has become a democracy. That changes the equation somewhat in Washington. But the extent to which this becomes a problem between Washington and Beijing will be decided by the Chinese response. The U.S. is hoping that this visit will pass without turning into a major showdown, as when President Lee Teng-hui visited during the Clinton administration.

So has the Bush administration in fact shifted U.S. policy on Taiwan and China, or is the greater leeway given to President Chen simply a bit of tactical tweaking on Washington's part?

There has certainly been a shift in policy on Taiwan, with the U.S. willing to be more upfront in support for Taiwan. The submarines in the recent arms package was an important shift. And the tone is shifting, with President Bush trying to push the envelope. There is a sense among the right wing that we shouldn't let China tell us how to run our business, and that creates congressional pressure on Bush. Still, the Bush administration also understands the importance of working with Taiwan on issues of importance to both sides, such as missile defense and proliferation, Korea, trade, the WTO and a host of others. Administration officials said President Bush's recent statement about defending Taiwan at all costs was "rebalancing" a relationship they believe had tilted too far towards Beijing in the Clinton years. They're not talking about fundamentally changing the One China policy.

What are the risks in this policy shift?

There's a danger that China will overreact, as they did when President Lee Teng-hui visited. Also, there's a danger that the pro-reform factions in Beijing will be undermined if the U.S. appears to be cozying up to Taiwan despite President Jiang Zemin's policy of openness towards the West. The race is on right now to succeed Jiang, and the conservatives will use stronger U.S.-Taiwan ties against the reformists. Now that they have Hong Kong and Macau back, Taiwan has become more of an obsession for the Chinese.

Some in Washington argue that engaging more directly with Taiwan would help ease pressure there for independence, and help defuse a potentially cataclysmic crisis. That said, however, polls show that there's not a big push for independence among Taiwanese right now; they're quite happy the way they are. This administration certainly has more sympathy for Taiwan and many of its more conservative elements believe China is the next big threat. They want to send a strong signal to the Chinese that the U.S. would not stand idly by if Taiwan is attacked. Still, even though the U.S. won't support formal independence for Taiwan, there's a risk that this new policy sends a message to Taiwan that they don't have to deal with Chinese, because they have a friend in Washington. So it remains a delicate balancing act. And it would be no surprise if China responds to the Chen visit by doing something really nasty in some unrelated policy sphere that is of concern to the U.S.