Friday, February 13, 2009

Tempest in a punchbowl

Tempest (or Worse) in a Punchbowl

Jonathan Adams
Newsweek, "China Calling" blog
January 31, 2009

Talk about words coming back to haunt you. President Obama's pick for the nation's top intelligence post is probably wishing he'd picked a less vivid term to vent his anger at the Taiwan government back in 2000.

Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, denied that he ever called Taiwan a "turd in the punchbowl of US-China relations," according to an Associated Press report. He was responding in writing to a question from a US senator during his confirmation process (Blair was confirmed this week).

But then Blair went on with a lawyerly, Clinton-esque distinction. The retired admiral admitted he had used the "too-colorful phrase 'tossing a turd in the punchbowl" during a meeting in 2000, to describe "a single, specific action by the Taiwanese government, certainly not Taiwan itself."

In other words, he was dissing Taiwan's behavior, not Taiwan.

So what got Blair in a lather in 2000? The report doesn't say. But the George W. Bush White House had become increasingly displeased with the government of former President Chen Shui-bian, who took power in Taiwan that year. The U.S. came to see the pro-independence Chen as needlessly provoking China -- which considers Taiwan as a wayward province -- and causing Washington a major headache in the process.

Washington's displeasure finally burst out into the open when Chen insisted on going ahead with a referendum that China viewed as a step toward full independence. Standing next to a top Chinese official at the White House in late 2003, Bush said:

"We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo. And 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."

Those may sound like tame words. But in the hypersensitive world of cross-strait relations, it amounted to an embarrassing verbal smackdown of Washington's island ally.

Turns out Washington and Beijing had good reason to be concerned. In his latest book "The Cross of Taiwan", ex-president Chen -- now detained on corruption charges -- said he had hidden the extent of his pro-independence bent to placate "those in Beijing and in the White House."

The Financial Times excerpted the book:

"I admit that I seek not just de facto independence for Taiwan but also de jure independence. Therefore the criticisms levelled at me by China and the US during my eight years in office were not groundless. Just like they said, I am a splittist. I am a seeker and practitioner of de jure independence for Taiwan."

Punch, anyone?

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