BEIJING — A surprise move by Taiwan to assert itself, which angered China and threatened to drive a deeper wedge between Washington and Beijing, may actually have the opposite effect of nudging the two big powers closer together.
In the second exchange between the two men in a week, President Clinton telephoned Chinese President Jiang Zemin on Sunday, reiterating U.S. support for the idea that there is only "one China" and that together, the mainland and Taiwan make up a single country.
Their previous contact, a week earlier, was about soccer. The two leaders sent messages congratulating each other for the fine performance put on by their countries' teams in the Women's World Cup final.
Clinton's phone call to Jiang on Sunday came in direct response to an escalating war of words between Taipei and Beijing after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui abruptly junked the "one China" formula that has served as the mainstay of Sino-Taiwanese ties for half a century.
Lee said earlier this month that the two longtime rivals are actually separate states on a virtual par with one another, an equation that infuriated the mainland, which considers Taiwan a rebel province.
Lee's statement in a radio interview caught Beijing and Washington by surprise. Observers in both capitals were mystified by its timing and substance.
Some analysts speculated that Lee's remarks were aimed at shaking up Taiwan's political establishment in advance of next year's presidential elections, when Lee will step down.
Others suspect the Taiwanese leader of trying to exploit Sino-U.S. tensions in the wake of the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in May.
But such a gambit--if that was indeed Lee's intent--seems to have backfired.
U.S. officials had feared that China would accuse Washington of being behind Lee's remarks and would rebuff planned U.S. efforts to gradually improve relations.
After the Taiwanese leader's rhetorical bombshell, however, the White House quickly came out in favor of the "one China" policy, culminating in Clinton's half-hour chat with Jiang late Sunday--a stark turnaround from the days after the NATO bombing, when the Chinese president refused to take a call from Clinton to apologize.
The official Chinese media splashed news of Clinton's latest phone call on front pages Monday and led the nightly national newscast with the story.
Beijing Can Count On U.S. Support for Policy
Some experts now are hopeful that the White House's swift support will not only help defuse the crisis across the Taiwan Strait but put Sino-U.S. relations back onto a friendlier track.
"That's really helpful," political scientist Jin Canrong said of Clinton's personal assurance that the U.S. will adhere to the "one China" concept.
The Beijing regime need not fear erosion of support in Washington for the policy and can therefore hold off, for the time being, from mounting a dramatic response such as war exercises it conducted in 1996. Then, the U.S. sent warships to protect Taiwan after China lobbed missiles into nearby waters to intimidate the island.
"Because the U.S. stated its position very clearly, the Beijing [leadership] has the patience and confidence to let [some] time pass" and to wait for Taipei's promised clarification of Lee's remarks, said Jin, an expert on U.S.-Chinese relations at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"There's another party who has no stomach for big confrontation right here, and that's the U.S.," said Jonathan Pollack, a senior analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. "In a funny kind of way, the U.S. and China are driven toward some kind of accommodation or exercise of restraint that the Taiwan agenda may somewhat differ [from]."
Clinton's show of support also gives Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji ammunition in their battle to strengthen ties with the U.S., a policy opposed by hard-liners within the Chinese government who regard the U.S. with deep suspicion. Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan likely will meet with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a gathering of officials from Asian-Pacific nations in Singapore this week, and Clinton and Jiang may meet in September at a similar regional summit.
For its part, Beijing, while keeping up a stream of invective toward Lee, has not accused the U.S. of being the invisible hand behind Taipei's latest actions. In the past, the Communist regime often has accused "anti-China" forces in the U.S. of encouraging and even orchestrating Taiwanese moves toward independence.
"The dominant opinion is that the origin of the [new rhetoric] is from Taiwan, not from the U.S.," Jin said.
Pollack added: "In a personal and direct way, Clinton is trying to send a signal to Jiang that there's no hidden American hand behind this, that the U.S. was as blindsided as anyone else by Lee's comments."
Although the present crisis has not reached 1996 proportions, both sides of the Taiwan Strait are on heightened military alert.