The government in Taiwan has backed away from statements made by President Chen Shui-bian, who provoked mainland China to unleash a fury of verbal attacks on the island's leader. Some analysts say Mr. Chen did not mean to ratchet up tensions with Beijing, but others say regardless of his motives, that's what is happening.
President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party has long advocated Taiwan's independence from mainland China. But when Mr. Chen campaigned for the presidency in 2000, he backed away from that position, and in his inaugural speech, he pledged not to push for Taiwan's separation from China.
However, a few weeks ago, President Chen said the island may have to go its own way. And in a speech Saturday, he called for a referendum, saying Taiwan and China are separate countries on opposite sides of the Taiwan Straits. China wants Taiwan reunified with the mainland and has not renounced the use force if Taiwan declares its independence.
China specialist Robert Ross points out Beijing is clearly opposed to Taiwan holding a referendum on the issue of independence.
"One of the redlines is a referendum on Taiwan - the holding of a referendum, not the outcome, but the holding of a referendum," he said. "So they've laid down their markers clear, and that's what makes this such a challenge from Taiwan. One, it's a direct challenge to what the mainland has said would be equivalent to a declaration of independence, and two, it's Chen Shui-bian's statement of yi bian, yi guo - that is to say 'we are a country, as well as China, each on their own side of the Taiwan Strait.' Put those two together, this is a new level of provocation which could lead to some higher tension."
President Chen says his remarks were misunderstood, adding it would be more accurate to say both sides are sovereign with parity.
Professor Ross, who teaches political science at Boston College, says Taiwan's efforts to downplay or clarify Mr. Chen's statements are a vain attempt at damage control.
"Over the years, every time there's been a new statement, they're also quick to say, 'this is not a change in policy.' And over time, those kind of clarifications lose effectiveness and people stop listening," said Mr. Ross. "And they begin to say, 'yes, it is a change in policy and it's too late for you to try and assuage people's concerns.'
Former U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley disagrees. He says people on Taiwan have assured him that President Chen's statements do not amount to a reversal in Taiwan's policy. In his opinion, the Taiwan leader may have spoken out of frustration that he is not able to have a working dialogue with Beijing.
Chinese officials meet regularly with the political opposition on Taiwan, but refuse to meet with President Chen until he agrees that Taiwan is part of China. Mr. Chen does not want any pre-conditions to talks with the mainland.
Following his remarks on Saturday, China accused President Chen of taking Taiwan down a dangerous road and leading his people toward disaster. Beijing's reaction, in Mr. Lilley's words, is a lot of gong-banging and posturing.
"It seems to me that the Chinese posturing is giving a message to Taiwan," he said. "And this is again a continuing psychological warfare. And it's just been escalated. But I see, at least from my vantage point, that the Taiwanese are backing away from it."
Ambassador Lilley notes that both sides of the Taiwan Straits have too much at stake to endanger the relationship. "The positive elements in this relationship are so powerful that if you get fascinated with word games, I think you're missing the point," he said. "The point is the investment has never been higher. Trade is way up there. There's probably three-quarters of a million Taiwanese living in China in communities. And there are Chinese coming to Taiwan. More and more the exchanges are taking place, and they're talking about direct links between Xiamen and the Penghu Islands. There's an awful lot going on."
China is conducting its annual military exercises, and official Chinese news reports this week say those exercises will be extended to October and will include simulated attacks and beach landings. Professor Ross wonders if China will escalate the military maneuvers the way it did in 1996, when it launched missile tests over waters near Taiwan. "These exercises, although they have been planned for many many months," he said, "create an opportunity for the mainland to once again escalate tension through saber rattling."
Professor Ross says the current situation may have arisen at least partly because the Bush administration has worked to improve its political and defense relations with Taiwan and not tried to rein in what he calls a wayward ally. He says that may have signaled Beijing that it must create tension before Washington will recognize China's interests.
Ambassador Lilley says it's important for the United States not to interfere now. Both Taiwan and China know where the United States stands, he says, so it's a time for quiet diplomacy.