HONOLULU — “No surprises.” This was one of the pledges Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian made to Washington, both at the time of his inauguration and again after his Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, made a better-than-expected showing in the December 2001 parliamentary elections and formed a virtual alliance with the even more independence-prone Taiwan Solidarity Union (which looks to former President Lee Teng-hui for guidance and inspiration).

From the onset, Chen seemed fully aware of the damage that his predecessor’s surprise “special state-to-state” description of China-Taiwan relations had inflicted on Taipei’s relations with Washington during the Clinton administration. “This would not happen again,” Chen seemed to be promising.

Well, here we go again. Chen’s assertion last Saturday (in a video-conference address to the World Association of Taiwanese Associations in Tokyo) that “it must be clearly distinguished that both Taiwan and China are a country on either side of the strait” and, even more provocatively, that Taiwan’s future should be decided by a referendum — a long-recognized Chinese “red line” that Chen had previously pledged not to seek — seemed to come as a surprise, not only to Washington and Beijing, but even to many of Chen’s advisers and supporters.

We now see the same back-peddling spin — “this does not reflect a change in policy” — that followed Lee’s earlier purposefully provocative remarks.

As surprising as they were, Chen’s comments did not come completely out of the blue. They were preceded by remarks on July 21 that “we would not rule out going our own way” if Beijing continued to reject Taipei’s goodwill gestures. His speech Saturday contained several new references to Taiwan “walking down our own road . . . our Taiwan road” along with a specific reference to his earlier speech.

What gives? Is Chen trying to get himself branded a “troublemaker” in Washington’s (and Beijing’s) eyes? Only Chen knows for sure. One simple word might provide some insight, however: Nauru! It is no coincidence that Chen’s initial “own road” remarks came only a few hours after the president of Nauru announced in Hong Kong that his nation was severing diplomatic ties with Taipei in favor of Beijing.

That reduced to 27 the number of nations — primarily impoverished states in Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific — enjoying diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Nauru’s decision proved once again that a country’s friendship cannot be bought — but can be rented if the price is right. In this case, the enticement reportedly turned out to be $60 million in Chinese financial aid, plus a promise to pay Nauru’s $77 million debt to General Electric. Taipei announced that it was unwilling to enter into “cash competition” for Nauru’s affections, even as it continues to pay generous amounts of “rent” elsewhere.

Chen’s “own road” comment appears based, at least in part, on his continued frustration over Taipei’s lack of success in gaining increased “international breathing space.” To the contrary, the Nauru “defection” (as the switch was described in Taipei) appears part of a broader campaign to lure additional Taiwan partners into Beijing’s camp.

But Beijing needs to stop and ask itself about the consequences of further success. If only a handful of states recognize the Republic of China, why continue to pretend it still exists? While Beijing refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the “Republic of China,” almost any new name (especially Republic of Taiwan) would be worse.

Chen seems to be warning Beijing that its continuing efforts to tighten the diplomatic noose may leave him with no option other than to pursue an independence path. Chen’s reference to a referendum as a “basic human right” — without setting a date or, for that matter, even specifically calling for one (he just said it should be considered) — may signal that the other “no’s” included in his inaugural address (including no declaration of independence) might also be reconsidered if Beijing continues to isolate and humiliate his administration.

This is, of course, a very dangerous game and one that could prove as counterproductive to Taiwan-U.S. relations as Lee Teng-hui’s “state-to-state” comments. Why run the risk of alienating a Washington administration that has proven to be exceptionally supportive of Taiwan? How does this serve Taiwan’s long-term interests? These are questions for Chen and the DPP to seriously ponder if it continues rhetorically down the “Taiwan” road.

Washington also needs to ask itself if its highly publicized assertion that it will do “whatever it takes” to help Taiwan defend itself has given Taipei the confidence it needs to engage Beijing — its stated purpose — or to openly challenge its giant neighbor, an action that is clearly not in America’s national security interest.

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