The April standoff on Hainan Island following the collision of a U.S. spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet was a striking reminder of how troubled the relationship remains between the world's most powerful country and its most populous one. The sources of contention in that standoff -- the purpose of reconnaissance flights, the interpretation of national sovereignty, and the handling of public diplomacy -- could provoke a future standoff on another, more critical island: Taiwan. Although the spy-plane drama ended happily with the homecoming of the detained American crew, unresolved military and diplomatic issues promise greater discord to come in the U.S.-China relationship -- a simmering conflict that could soon explode over the status of Taiwan.
Washington's official relationship with Beijing on the one hand and its unofficial relationship with Taipei on the other represent perhaps the most complex foreign-policy balancing act in the world today. At stake are a number of core U.S. foreign policy goals: the promotion of democracy, the preservation of U.S. credibility, loyalty to traditional allies and friends, the engagement and integration of an emerging power into the international system, and the maintenance of peace and stability in Asia as a whole. The interplay and clash among these various goals make the Taiwan Strait an unpredictable and therefore dangerous place. Moreover, Taiwan's recent democratization has undermined the "one-China" policy and made the prospect of conflict increasingly likely. Compounding the problem is the deep division within the U.S. foreign policy elite over how to maintain the increasingly fragile peace there. Perhaps nowhere else on the globe is the situation so seemingly intractable and the prospect of a major war involving the United States so real.
ONE CHINA, ONE TAIWAN
When Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek ruled the mainland and Taiwan, respectively, the issue at stake was not whether there was only one China, but who its legitimate ruler was. Chiang sought to retake the mainland for the Republic of
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