SINGAPORE — U.S. President George W. Bush got it just about right last week when he publicly criticized Taiwan’s leader during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Washington. Accusations from “friends of Taiwan’s democracy” notwithstanding, Bush was not kowtowing to China; he was merely expressing U.S. policy in clear and plain language. My only complaint about Bush’s comments is that they may have been too little, too late.

Here’s what Bush said: “We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo.” In other words, Beijing is not to use force, and Taiwan is not to declare independence. Nothing new here; this is long-standing U.S. policy.

After allowing this message to be translated, Bush continued: “And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally that change the status quo, which we oppose.” This message was equally clear as well: When the Bush administration looks at the cross-Strait situation today, it is Taiwan, not the Mainland, that seems most intent on rocking the boat.

While Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s recent talk of referendums and constitutional revisions may serve his domestic political agenda — Chen is in the middle of a hotly contested re-election campaign — his efforts to disrupt the status quo do not serve U.S. national security interests.

Let’s be perfectly clear on this point: It was Chen’s campaign tactics, not Chinese demands, that prompted Bush’s remarks. Bush and Wen would have been perfectly content to make their ritualistic “one-China” comments and then move on. It was Chen’s actions, immediately in advance of the Chinese premier’s visit, that pushed Taiwan to the top of the political agenda.

Chen’s actions also reinforce the growing suspicion in Washington that Taiwan leaders see U.S. relations with Beijing and Taipei strictly in zero-sum terms. Bush clearly believes that his administration can enjoy close relations with both and has little tolerance for attempts by either Beijing or Taipei to undermine the other relationship. Beijing seems to have grasped this; Taipei apparently has not.

While the primary responsibility for the current controversy rests with Chen, Beijing and Washington are not free of their share of the blame. China continues its diplomatic full-press against Taipei, thus raising Chen’s frustration level. Beijing’s refusal to permit Taiwan’s entry into the World Health Organization, even as a “health entity” — a status that would reinforce China’s “one China” claim — increases the “separatist” feelings China claims to be combating.

More importantly, Beijing seems to have concluded that if 100 missiles opposite Taiwan is a good thing, 500 must be five times as good. The point of diminishing returns has long since been passed. At some point, Washington will feel compelled to respond with more advanced missile defense systems (such as AEGIS), which will then prompt Beijing to accuse Washington of emboldening Taiwan. Neither Taipei nor Beijing seems to understand the principle of cause and effect.

Meanwhile, comments by administration hardliners claiming that Bush is Taiwan’s “guardian angel” and that he did not “oppose” independence were enthusiastically interpreted in Taipei as a green light to push the cross-Strait envelope.

While Washington remains officially neutral regarding the outcome of the March 2004 Taiwan presidential elections, members of Chen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, have been frequently citing such remarks as “proof” that Washington not only backs Taiwan democracy — which it does — but also Chen’s re-election bid. Bush’s recent comments should help correct this misperception.

In this regard, Bush has been criticized for referring to Chen as the “leader of Taiwan” instead of “President Chen” in Wen’s presence. Had Bush done otherwise, however, it would have been immediately interpreted as a further “endorsement” by the DPP, despite the admonition his words contained. Likewise, had Bush made reference to “the Taiwan authorities,” he would have handed a major propaganda victory to Beijing. He did neither, staying carefully on his intended message.

By speaking up when and as he did, Bush has changed the green light to yellow. The message: time to slow down and prepare to stop. Unfortunately, the more common response, especially among those inclined to drive recklessly, is to stomp on the gas and rush ahead.

It would be unrealistic to expect Chen to abandon his referendum drive completely; this would be political suicide. The initiative, as currently described — voters will be asked whether they oppose the presence of Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan or the use of force in resolving the cross-Strait issue — is pure politics and nothing more. After all, is anyone in favor of being threatened?

But, having painted himself into a corner once, Chen now seems intent on not allowing the paint to dry. He seems to be openly confronting and antagonizing Washington (as well as Beijing), apparently confident that a little bit of anti-Americanism might also stir Taiwan nationalist sentiments that would serve his near-term political interests. That they might harm Taipei’s long-term interests seems to matter little.

Rumor has it that when Chen was advised recently that he was pushing Washington too far, he replied “once I win, the U.S. will have little option other than to back me.” That, of course, presumes that Taiwan’s voters will find his current brinkmanship in their national interest. It also presumes that Bush will not feel compelled to take even more direct steps to express Washington’s displeasure with Taipei’s current policies, or that more publicly branding Chen as a potential “troublemaker” will not cost him votes. Is that a red light ahead?

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