In response to the 'three ifs' in Beijing's recently published White Paper on Taiwan are three 'whys' concerning Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan's attack on the US during his press conference yesterday. Why, when China is on the verge of World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership, should the leadership play into the hands of its foes in Washington by blaming the US for the latest round of cross-strait tension? With just over a week to go to Taiwan's presidential election, why risk inflaming independence hopes in the renegade province? And why respond so belligerently on the day US Defence Secretary William Cohen urged the two sides to work out their differences around the conference table? This latest salvo will do no good to anyone, least of all Beijing. It is a big setback for President Bill Clinton in his attempt to push Congress into granting China permanent Normal Trade Relations status. It could impede the progress of resumed WTO talks with the European Union, and strengthen the hands of critics in Congress already hostile to China's membership. In Taiwan, Mr Tang's words may increase the electoral chances of presidential hopeful Chen Shui-bian whom China describes as a separatist, despite Mr Chen's protestations of moderation and pledge not to revive the bogey of 'special state-to-state relations'. Beijing's policy of alternating between tough talk and soft words on Taiwan could be connected with the need to placate the hardline old guard which yearns to see the island back in the fold, like Hong Kong and Macau. But Taiwan is not a colony. It is a thriving democracy whose people do not react well to threats. For different political reasons, the US has also sent mixed signals over Taiwan. Repeated assurances of support for the one-China policy by the Clinton administration are at odds with Republican distrust of Beijing. The Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which the House passed by a veto-proof margin earlier this year, has complicated Sino-US relations to an extraordinary degree. Requiring a much closer working partnership between the Taiwanese and American military, it has - as House critics feared - played directly into China's hands. What is needed now is delicate behind-the-scenes diplomacy to calm matters. That can best be done by restoring the ambiguity that existed previously in cross-strait relations.