Thursday, October 28, 2004

Communication breakdown ...

I goofed. My mistake was to see US Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement through the lens of long-held US foreign policy, not as it would be interpreted by those whose lives it would affect the most.

Cross Strait relations have been so taut for decades that every statement issued by Taiwan, China or the US is combed over for nuance, as officials search for that hidden departure buried in a morass of jargon. It is here that a slip of the tongue can have others wagging for months on end.

Powell said that Taiwan was not an independent state and did not enjoy sovereignty. This is not, as I pointed out earlier, at odds with previous US policy. It is, however, a precedent. For the past 25 years, the US has religiously followed its policy of "studied ambiguity," but Powell either forgot to hit the books or was dropping a hint. Powell's sin was not his interpretation of US policy, but how he articulated it. Up to this point, US officials have cautiously avoided saying whether Taiwan was sovereign or independent. In short, no nays or yeas, but this week's turn of events changed all that and rattled Taiwan's confidence in its relations with the US.

The US State Department is already backtracking here in Taipei. President Chen Shui-bian called upon the director of the American Institute, Douglas Paal, to clarify Powell's statements.
Paal said US policy hasn't changed. He also said Powell tripped up when he said, "We want to see both sides not take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a reunification that all parties are seeking." The key solecism, according to Paal, was Powell's use of the word "reunification," when what Powell had intended to say was "resolution." From Taiwan's point of view, this is a nasty gaffe, as many Taiwanese are wary of any move on the part of the US to weaken its position vis-a-vis China.

Speculation is rife as to what Powell really meant. Many in Taiwan see Powell's statements as a thinly veiled warning to Taiwan to not go too far when pursuing independence. Others, such as myself, think that Powell mistakenly overstepped the bounds of diplomatic protocol. It's a hard call. I'd like to think it's much ado about nothing, but as I noted on my first blog entry, US-Taiwan relations are changing, and they may not be changing for the better.

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