THE dilemma facing Australia in todays troubled and increasingly complex world is how to respond to a political situation if Taiwan unilaterally declared its independence.
Such a situation cannot be ruled out although it may seem hypothetical at this stage. But the question of Taiwan making such a move keeps coming up time and time again.
All it needs is one strong leader to force the issue of the nations aspiration for complete freedom from China and it could mean a serious problem for its protector, the United States, and for Australia, which has to decide what its response must be in view of its alignment with the US.
Indeed, the growing challenge for the Australian Government of whatever persuasion is whom it will support China or Taiwan in a conflict over the Straits of Taiwan.
Several problems relating to the use of the waterways between the island and mainland China arose last week with speculation of threats of military force being used in the region.
It prompted Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer to comment that a Taiwanese move toward independence would be regarded as a provocative step and would be regrettable.
But he fell short of making it clear what kind of response Australia would make in such an eventuality.
The Australian Government has expressed the hope that the two countries would not resolve their problems by using force despite their military preparedness and Chinas periodical bombardments to an area near Taiwan as a show of strength.
Taiwan, increasingly being ostracised by the world community in political terms, is safe from a Chinese invasion for the moment because of a kind of umbrella protection from the US.
Its American support depends, to a large extent, on the US Senate continuing to provide billions of dollars to keep it free from Chinas hold. Ironically, the two neighbours are bound by Taiwans US$60bil investment in China.
But how long will the US support last in the prevailing climate of its commitments to South Korea, Japan and Iraq is hard to define at this stage. China has insisted on a one-China policy, which means it will not accept Taiwan as an independent nation.
For Australia, it has become more difficult to formulate a policy on dealing with the Taiwan issue because of Australias strong relationship with China, both politically and economically.
This is reflected in what Prime Minister John Howard characterises as a very mature and practical relationship between Australia and China.
True, 10 years ago it would have been impossible for a Chinese head of state to address a joint session of the Australian Parliament, let alone use a foreign language in the chamber, as President Hu Jintao did two weeks ago.
The change has been dramatic despite different cultures, traditions and histories.
Taking this change into perspective, it is interesting to note an observation made by former Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott in his recent address to the National Institute for Asia and the Pacific in Sydney.
He said: While it is agreed that there is an inherent tension in the world today between the pursuit of national interest and the growing interdependence of countries, my practical experience and my recent observations suggest that national interest and the defence of the integrity of the sovereign state are the touchstones of present international relationships.
It is a curious fact that while the economic situation has never been more globalised and interdependent, the international political situation continues to be firmly focused on often divisive national sovereignty issues, for example, China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and North and South Korea.
Closer to home there are still no less than seven claimants to the Spartley Islands in the South China Sea.
Woolcott goes further to urge the Australian Government to have a clear understanding of what it wants to achieve in foreign affairs and trade policy. It then has to decide how best to achieve its objectives.
But whatever the merit of Woolcotts observations, the Howard government is unlikely to shift from its present policy of leaning toward the United States at least for the time being.
It is certain to point out that the evolution of Australias relationship with the once sleepy giant behind the so-called bamboo curtain has benefited both countries.
Its link with China has been further strengthened with the historic signing of a A$25bil deal to supply natural gas to Guandong province.
As a result of President Hus recent visit to Australia, China will become an investor in the North-West Shelf gas development in Western Australia.
Therefore, there is too much to lose for Australia to be involved in a US defence over the Taiwan issue.
Puzzling to some political observers is US President George W. Bushs statement to the Federal Parliament a day before President Hus address that he expected Australia to act to keep peace in the Taiwan Straits.
What exactly does Bush mean by this? The question was put to Downer in Sydney last week.
Downer replied that it did not mean militarily as no military peacekeeping operation was being conducted in the Taiwan Straits.
But countries like Australia and Japan and others in the region (are expected) to play their part to encourage the Beijing administration to resolve the Taiwan problem through negotiation and cooperation, and Taiwan to do likewise and ensure that there is no provocation by either side, he added.
However, Woolcott is among those optimistic about the present situation, pointing out that the most important trend in the dramatic global change is Chinas coming challenge to more than 50 years of American dominance.
As recently as last year, China was regarded as a threat to weaker economies in South-East Asia. Now China is seen as doing its best to please, assist and accommodate its neighbours and is increasingly involved in its own primary anti-terrorist agenda.
o Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia Pacific Media (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)