A few days ago, Taiwan Premier Yu Shyi-kun spoke with think tank scholars at a breakfast gathering in New York. When the conversation turned to China, the Premier was solemn: “If the United States can help overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein to establish democracy in Iraq, why doesn’t Washington treasure Taiwan’s democracy more?” His statement reflects a shift toward a new Taiwanese independence movement that threatens to pull America into an open confrontation with China.

For the past decade, the Taiwanese population has increasingly identified itself as culturally distinct from China, and this view is reflected in the political process. In 2000, the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian won the Taiwan presidency, breaking the pro-reunification Kuomintang Party’s monopoly on the highest public office. Chen won a narrow re-election this past March with 50.1 percent of the vote, but this outcome still represents a sizable increase from his 33.9 percent showing in 2000.

Chen’s pan-green coalition, an alliance between the two largest pro-independence parties, is likely to seize a majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan, or parliament, in elections this December. Right now the pan-green coalition is only narrowly in the minority, with 100 out of the 225 seats in the legislature. The pro-reunification pan-blue coalition currently controls 108 seats and 17 seats are non-aligned.

With a unified government behind independence, Chen’s promised constitutional referendum in 2006 to make Taiwan a “normal and complete nation” by 2008 would be well on its way.

China is steadfastly opposed to a new constitution, which it views as tantamount to independence. Last July the Chinese Defense Minister, Cao Gangchuan, warned, “If Taiwan independence forces continue to act willfully, the People’s Liberation Army has the determination and capability to resolutely smash any Taiwan independence’s splitist conspiracy.” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office threatened to attack Taiwan before 2008 if Chen continues with his referendum agenda.

China has at least 496 missiles pointed at Taiwan, and a recent Pentagon report estimates that 75 more will be added each year. China’s 2.5 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is evolving away from a cumbersome ground force towards a more modern, mobile one capable of a cross-strait attack. Just last month, the Chinese military launched a staged multi-service assault on the South China Sea island of Dongshan that involved over 18,000 troops. The island was chosen for its resemblance to Taiwan in terrain and weather.

If a new Taiwanese constitution provokes a war with China, President Bush has indicated that the U.S. would defend Taiwan—despite the costs. In an interview with ABC News in 2001, Bush made it clear that the U.S. had an obligation to help defend Taiwan “and the Chinese must understand that.” When asked if that included the use of U.S. forces, Bush responded the U.S. would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.”

In the best case scenario, the U.S. would easily defeat China in a battle localized to the South China Sea; this would cost America its third most important trade partnership, and would significantly harm the U.S. economy. In the worst-case scenario, China could launch twenty ICBMs with nuclear warheads capable of reaching the continental United States. Would America be ready, as PLA Lieutenant General Xiong Guangkai once famously threatened, to “sacrifice Los Angeles to protect Taiwan?”

China and Taiwan are set on a slow-motion collision course, and U.S. policy is inadvertently encouraging the impending catastrophe. U.S. security guarantees make Taiwan independence advocates feel invulnerable, while leaving China discouraged over the possibilities of peaceful reunification and increasingly belligerent. Further, these promises lock the United States into a conflict with China that can only end in a disaster for the American people.

Taiwan’s December elections are a key date for the future of China-Taiwan-U.S. relations. But before that, come November, Bush or Kerry needs to make clear that America will not come to the defense of any independent Taiwan. This would renew the push for a peaceful reunion on both sides and preclude a Sino-American war over the strait. America is loathe to ignore Taiwan’s quest for self-determination, but an American guarantee of it would be very costly.