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Jay
28 Oct 04,, 18:33
America fears island's separatist moves could spark a war
By Ching Cheong
Chief China Correspondent
In Washington

TAIWAN suffered its gravest diplomatic setback in two decades when US Secretary of State Colin Powell stated clearly that the island is not independent and so does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation.

He also held out the peaceful unification of China and Taiwan as an eventual outcome, one strongly detested by the separatist movement led by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Do Mr Powell's statements signal a major shift in US policy towards Taiwan?

It is hard to say. After all, the basic premises - the one-China policy based on the three communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act, as well as dictating a peaceful resolution between both sides of the Taiwan Strait - remain the same. This is why the State Department has come out to say that US policy towards Taiwan has not changed.

Yet it is pretty clear that some parts have been tweaked to curtail the growth of separatism.

Mr Powell has told Taiwan in no uncertain terms that separatism is a dead end. The island's future lies in working out a formula for peaceful unification with China.

Even ardent Taiwan supporters like Mr James Liley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, acknowledged that 'a long-standing position made unnecessarily explicit indicates a change in the mindset'.

Ms Bonnie Glaser of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, known for her pro-Taiwan stance, also expressed shock.

This fine-tuning of American policy is sufficiently strong to send shock waves across the island.

Foreign Minister Mark Chen admitted that it was the most severe blow to Taiwan, one made worse by the fact that there was no prior warning from the Americans. Mr Chen, who had bragged that he could get pre- and post-visit briefings from senior US officials, was dumbfounded.

Most analysts in Taiwan blame the reckless push by President Chen Shui-bian for de jure independence, which has alarmed Washington, as the root cause of the fine-tuning in American policy.

Mr Chang Yung Kung, the spokesman for mainland affairs for the opposition Kuomintang, said that this showed his earlier prediction that 'hasty independence would lead ironically to hasty unification' was true.

Mr Lin Cho-shui, the DPP's chief theoretician, blamed the President for 'running foreign policy as if conducting an election campaign' and often ignoring the basic rules of diplomatic courtesy.

Some in Taiwan tried to downplay the significance of Mr Powell's remarks, saying that he is unlikely to remain in office after Nov 2, regardless of who wins the presidential election. Others would like to believe that his tough talk was intended to influence December's legislative election.

While the Chen government might try to downplay his remarks, it would be wrong to assume that they do not carry weight.

His statement represents a general realisation in the US that the separatist movement, if unfettered, will likely spark a cross-strait war, one that could embroil the United States.

President Chen's formulation of 'one country on each side of the Strait', as well as his attempt to call a referendum to announce independence, has upset even traditional supporters in the US Congress and conservative think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the AEI.

Warnings by the Bush administration had fallen on deaf ears. Premier Yu Shyi-kun's recent threat to fire missiles at Shanghai in a retaliatory strike was seen as provocative.

Clearly, the US is unsettled by the likelihood of Taiwan provoking China into starting a war of unification.

This concern is also a bipartisan one. Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry has mentioned while on the campaign trail that China's 'one country two systems' formula might be a worthwhile solution to explore.

As to why Mr Powell chose to make these remarks at this time, a Beijing source told The Straits Times that his remarks showed that the US paid more serious attention to China's May 17 statement than did the Taiwanese.

That statement, issued just ahead of President Chen's inauguration speech, reflected Beijing's resolve to go to war to stop separatism.

'Without the May 17 statement, maybe the US would fail to see the gravity of the situation,' said the source.

On Taiwan's part, its leaders chose to disregard Beijing's resolve. President Chen's Oct 10 speech showed that he still harboured a wish to push his independence agenda further.

Last month, one of his advisers placed full-page advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post appealing for support for the island's independence cause.

Clearly, the US felt it needed to make a clear statement now. Hence Mr Powell's blunt words.

http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/sub/asia/story/0,5562,281682,00.html?