THE DIPLOMATIC STORM that blew across the Taiwan Strait last week is over now, but it is only a matter of time until the heavy weather returns.
Sooner or later, Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, will again say something that suggests Taiwan ought to be regarded as an independent country. The communist government in Beijing will again react angrily, rattling its missiles and threatening to attack if Taiwan moves to declare its independence. Washington will again tsk-tsk over Chen's remarks, again reiterate its "one China" policy, and again intone that it opposes Taiwanese independence. And once again, all concerned will breathe a sigh of relief when the status quo is restored and the Taiwan issue returns to the back burner -- assuming it does.
The script is predictable. It is also shameful.
Taiwan is a free republic, a loyal American ally, a guarantor of civil liberties, and an engine of economic freedom. It does not deserve to be treated as an international pariah, or to be hastily shushed when it points out that it is China's political equal, not a rebellious Chinese province. The United States disgraces itself every time it fails to robustly defend Taiwan's right to freely determine its own future. The disgrace is compounded by the fact that the American unwillingness to embrace Taiwan, a sister democracy, is born of a desire to appease China, the world's foremost totalitarian dictatorship.
The latest imbroglio was set off when President Chen, in an Aug. 3 speech to the World Federation of Taiwanese Associations, made a point of emphasizing that Taiwan is not a part of China but a separate nation in its own right.
"Taiwan and the nation on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, China, are two nations," he said. "Each side is a nation. We have to be very clear about the distinction." He did not call for Taiwan to formally declare its independence from China, but he did say that any change in Taiwan's status ought to be decided by referendum -- and urged the legislature to enact a law making such a referendum possible. "Only the 23 million people of Taiwan have the right to make a decision on Taiwan's future and destiny."
Did Chen know that his statement would infuriate Beijing? Of course. Did he intend to send a pointed message? Sure he did. So what? His words were manifestly true. China and Taiwan are two nations. The right to chart Taiwan's future course does belong exclusively to Taiwan's people. Why shouldn't the president of Taiwan say so? It is hardly an outrage when a democratically elected national leader says his country's destiny should be decided democratically.
What was outrageous was China's reaction: a repeat of its longstanding threat to block Taiwanese independence by force. People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, reported on Aug. 6: "A rare combined military exercise -- involving various army branches conducting simulated landings and attacks -- will be launched in the middle of the month. . . . The strategic target of the exercises is Taiwan Island". Not exactly subtle.
Washington should have blasted the Chinese government for its thuggish belligerence and made it clear that the United States is unreservedly committed to Taiwan's defense. But it offered no support to Taipei and delivered no rebuke to Beijing. A spokesman for the National Security Council said only, "The US has a 'One China' policy and we do not support Taiwan independence."
Well, we ought to support Taiwan's independence, if independence is what the Taiwanese people favor. And if that means scrapping the "One China" policy, so much the better.
"One China" is a rusty antique, a relic of the days when the communists in Beijing and the Nationalist authoritarians in Taipei both claimed to be China's sole rightful government. US policy, spelled out in the Recognition Communiqué signed by Jimmy Carter in 1978, was simply to "acknowledge the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China."
But Taiwan is no longer ruled by authoritarians and its government no longer peddles the "One China" myth. For all practical purposes, Taiwan is a sovereign, independent nation. It should be free to say so, regardless of what the brutal bully on the other side of the strait may think. If that narrow waterway is one of the most potentially dangerous flashpoints in Asia, the fault is not Taiwan's but China's. And every time the United States attempts to appease Beijing at Taiwan's expense -- as for example by publicly opposing Taiwanese independence, or by refusing to sell Taiwan the advanced weapons systems it requires -- it rewards the bully's tantrums and makes that flashpoint more dangerous still.
Taiwan is not China. It has become something much better: an outpost of liberty, a vibrant democracy, a bulwark of civilization, a reliable friend. It deserves our unequivocal support.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Want to read more Jeff Jacoby? Sign up for "Arguable," his free weekly email newsletter