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TAIPEI — Communications between the governments of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and U.S. President George W. Bush have become increasingly muddled, adding to the possibility of a miscalculation in the confrontation between this island nation and China.

A blunder in what are known as “cross-strait relations” could cause the U.S. and China to stumble into hostilities that would affect everyone in East Asia. The dispute arises from Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan and its repeated threats to use force to conquer the island. On the other side, Taiwan seeks to remain separate from China and every day edges further away.

The Bush administration, preoccupied with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, insurgency in Iraq, volatile rivalry between Israel and Palestine, revival of relations with Europe, and signs of a Russian retreat from a sprouting democracy, has not articulated a real policy on the Taiwan issue beyond platitudes about settling disputes peacefully.

Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Henry Stimson Center in Washington and a retired diplomat experienced in Asia, recently warned that a blunder could lead to an escalation of tensions. “While the chance of cross-strait conflict is not high,” Romberg said, “it is also not zero, and the consequences would be enormous for all parties.”

Taiwanese and American officials in Taipei, at the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii and in Washington point to three reasons for the less-than-open communications between the two capitals:

China’s demand for a “one-China policy” that precludes all but routine contacts between Taipei and Washington.

Inexperience in foreign policy and statesmanship of Chen and his closest advisers and their tendency to see most issues through the lens of domestic politics.

Washington’s failure to grasp Chen’s drive for Taiwan’s self-determination, compounded by mixed messages from the White House, the State and Defense Departments, and Congress.

Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum think tank in Hawaii who often takes part in nongovernmental deliberations on the Taiwan issue, sums up succinctly: “To have good communications, people on both ends need to listen.”

“The Taiwanese are masters at ignoring U.S. official communications and hearing only what they want to hear,” Cossa says. “In Washington, the administration has been trying to get people to speak with one voice, but I don’t think they have been effective.”

After President Jimmy Carter broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan to established official ties with China in 1979, the U.S. set up the American Institute in Taiwan as an embassy in all but name. Routine communications through the institute work well, say American and Taiwanese officials who have access to each other.

Chen and his foreign and defense ministers, however, have never had serious discussions with Bush or a secretary of state or defense because Beijing’s “one-China policy” forbids it. Chen as president has not been allowed to visit the U.S. except for stopovers in transit to someplace else. Nor have senior Bush officials been to Taiwan.

The role of personalities in international relations is not to be underestimated. Contrast the distance between Chen and Bush with the political ties that have evolved between Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Those two leaders have met a dozen or more times over the last four years and sometimes talk on the phone.

American officials contend that a letter from Bush and special envoys sent to Taipei have conveyed the administration’s positions and thinking to Chen’s government. Senior Taiwanese officials retort that they cannot be sure those communications reflect Bush’s position or those of the staff or courier.

Whatever the case, Taiwanese officials said Chen has gotten the message from Washington in recent months. It makes two points: Cease public statements likely to anger the Chinese, and keep Washington informed so Bush officials are not surprised by Chen’s pronouncements.

An ironic touch: Former President Bill Clinton was just in Taipei to meet with Chen. In June 1998, Clinton angered most Taiwanese when he said in Shanghai: “We don’t support independence for Taiwan, or ‘two Chinas,’ or ‘one Taiwan, one China,’ and we don’t believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement.”

However, the Chinese roundly chastised Clinton for his recent visit to Taipei, calling his meeting with Chen a sign of recognition and thus a violation of the “one China principle.”

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