Dangerous differences on the status quo
The cornerstone of Washington's policy on the contentious relationship between Taiwan and mainland China is that neither side should upset the status quo. Both Taipei and Beijing insist that they, too, share this commitment. The trouble is that each party defines the status quo differently and Taipei, in particular, is taking increasingly bold actions to challenge it.
President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party government continue the campaign to establish a distinct 'Taiwanese identity'. Mr Chen's latest initiative is to hold a referendum on whether Taiwan should keep applying for UN membership - under the name 'Taiwan' and not 'the Republic of China'. This comes on the heels of attempts to gain membership in the World Health Organisation and measures to substitute 'Taiwan' for 'China' in the names of state corporations.
Frank Hsieh Chang-ting, the DPP's presidential candidate in next year's election, is likely to go even further than Mr Chen: he has indicated that he will not even provide the modest reassurances Mr Chen offered Beijing when he took office in 2000. Indeed, Mr Hsieh told the Taipei Times that he will amend the constitution and change the official name of the island - measures that Mr Chen promised he would not do.
During a speech in Washington, in late July, Mr Hsieh disputed US allegations that Taiwan was threatening the status quo, but made a blunt assertion: 'I believe Taiwan is already an independent country.'
At the same time, he said that Beijing's deployment of missiles across the strait from Taiwan was an act of provocation. He admitted, though, that Taipei and Washington held different conceptions of the status quo and that this difference was something that Taiwan badly needed to 'explore with the Americans'.
Mr Hsieh's attitude underscores the danger. When US officials speak of the status quo, they mean a willingness by all parties to tolerate Taiwan's ambiguous political status indefinitely. In other words, the island should continue to enjoy its de facto independence (but not internationally recognised legal independence) until Taipei and Beijing can agree on a peaceful resolution.
This rationale enables US policymakers to acknowledge Beijing's position that there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of it, while continuing to sell arms to Taiwan and maintaining an implicit commitment to defend the island. Taiwan's attempts to push the envelope on independence are considered undesirable, but so too is any attempt by the mainland to compel reunification.
Beijing has a radically different definition of the status quo. As one official put it: 'The status quo of cross-strait relations is that both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait belong to one and the same China.'
To Beijing, the status quo is a synonym for a one-China policy and Taiwan's eventual reunification with the mainland. Anything that challenges the concept of one China is, therefore, an unacceptable attempt to alter the status quo.
Taiwan's concept of the status quo is just the opposite. Taiwanese officials routinely argue, as Mr Hsieh did in Washington, that it means Taiwan as a sovereign state.
Reunification, according to Taipei, is only one possible outcome among many to be negotiated by the governments of two independent and equal states. From Taiwan's perspective, Beijing's anti-secession law - which threatens the use of military force against Taiwan in certain circumstances - and missile deployments are aggressive attempts to alter the status quo.
Even though they use the same terminology, officials in Beijing, Taipei and Washington talk past one another when they speak of preserving the status quo. Serious diplomatic quarrels, and even armed conflicts, have begun over smaller misunderstandings.
Ted Galen Carpenter is vice-president for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute