A few weeks ago I was asking myself: is it deja vu all over again in the Taiwan Strait? That was before Premier Wen Jiabao went to Washington, and I was finding remarkable similarities in current events with the 1995-96 crisis that ended in Lee Teng-hui's election as Taiwan's president. Here's what I was looking at: like Mr Lee's trip to Cornell University in 1995, Taiwan's incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, had set the clock ticking on a backlash from Beijing by shaking hands with powerful people during a stopover in New York en route to Central America. Like his predecessor, Mr Chen returned and espoused plans for the island's democratic evolution. As night follows day, the mainland military declared its resolve to do whatever it took to prevent the motherland being split. I thought the waters would go quiet for a while as Beijing sat back and awaited the US response. Even though Mr Chen then turned up the heat by talking about plans to change the constitution, I still believed the mainland's intelligence on Taiwan was sufficient to prevent Beijing from being overly alarmed. There was no way for Mr Chen to achieve his ambition, because he needed a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Nor would he be able to get a referendum law through that would empower him to circumvent the standard process of constitutional amendment. I was ready to predict there would be no rerun of the mainland's 1996 missile tests, and the US would not have to send aircraft carriers to waters near Taiwan. Premier Wen's trip has changed everything, and now I do believe the potential exists for a repeat of the previous crisis. With the US deciding to drop its 25-year-old policy of strategic ambiguity and publicly declaring that it is 'opposed' not only to Taiwan independence, but to steps that could be construed as leading to independence, options on both sides of the strait have been dangerously narrowed. Such clumsiness in the art of realpolitik must have Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state who constructed the triangular relationship in 1978, shaking his head. To be sure, there is no doubt that until Mr Wen went to Washington, the two sides of the strait had appeared on a collision course. Policymakers holding sway in Beijing seemed convinced that the previous Taoist-like approach to Taiwan affairs (do nothing, and nothing will not be done) was not working; those holding sway in Taipei seemed to believe that their political survival required going down a road that previously had been assumed would lead to war. But the key word is appeared. Behind the scenes, 'strategic ambiguity' was still holding everything in place. The majority of Taiwanese voters knew the US would stand with them against Beijing, so long as they didn't do anything that could be explicitly construed as breaking the status quo. Mr Chen was pushing the envelope, but had not cut the seal, and he was constrained by very strong legal safeguards. The mainland military, too, knew that it could make lots of noise, but if it plopped another shell in the Taiwan Strait, it would be forced into a showdown that would cost its generals an irredeemable loss of face. Even with the drama on the evening of the vote in Taiwan's parliament on the referendum law, which ended predictably, and even with Mr Chen's arrogant declaration that he would spurn its supposed restrictions in the name of 'national security', the rules of the game remained intact. But then President George W. Bush, with Premier Wen at his side, said: 'The comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.' Cut it any way you like, but you cannot have 'strategic ambiguity' if you take a side. Even when Mr Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, sent the carriers in 1996, it could be said that the US was simply monitoring a situation in international waters. Disingenuous, perhaps, but defensible in its ambiguity. Now we have a situation where the Taiwanese believe there is no reason to continue the charade of the 'status quo'. Even the Kuomintang - the Chinese Nationalist Party - has said it does not rule out Taiwan independence. Why should it? The status quo is henceforth to be defined by the US, which has set the precedent of judging what constitutes a breach. On the other side of the strait, the military leadership - which, remember, since March is no longer the same as the civilian leadership - has every reason to believe the US carriers will not come again if it acts against Mr Chen's alleged attempt to breach the status quo. And if it does act, and the US does send the carriers (because the situation would be infinitely less manageable if it didn't), what will happen? We will doubtless all find ourselves hoping that the 1996 crisis is in fact repeated in its entirety, and results in a climbdown by all.