The National People's Congress of the PRC recently adopted legislation authorizing the Chinese government to use force in the event of a Taiwanese declaration of independence. This is not really a policy change except in that the legislation outlines in detail small changes in Taiwan's constitution that may be deemed a provocation and initiate a military response. For example, were Taiwan to change it's official name from The Republic of China to The Republic of Taiwan, the PRC military could attack Taiwan with full legislative authority.
The proximal incentive for this rather inflammatory piece of legislation seems to have been a referendum included on the ballot of last year's presidential election in Taiwan, in which voters were asked to vote in favor of a resolution calling on the PRC to stand down all missiles fixed on Taiwan. Though that referendum was not ratified by a sufficient percentage of the electorate to pass, it was widely perceived as a dry run for a plebiscite (or series of plebiscites) on changing the Taiwanese constitution and declaring de jure independence from China.
The prospect of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is often followed by the question "what would (or should) the U.S. do?" Few options are left to the U.S. once hostilities break out in the Taiwan Strait, and none of them are very good. Thus U.S. policy should and has been geared toward preventing such choices from ever having to be made.
Unfortunately, few in the U.S. understand the situation in the Taiwan Strait. I am leery of speculating how many Americans can not distinguish between Taiwan and Thailand. Even those Americans aware of Taiwan's geography and political status are confused as to why the PRC and Taiwan are technically "one nation." Few are aware of the history of the Chinese civil war and the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government to Taiwan. Fewer still are aware of Taiwan's fifty years as a colony of Japan.
This general ignorance is troubling, because a number of factors have to be kept in mind in order to clearly analyze the situation. Partisans on both sides of the issue will quote a blizzard of facts and figures in support of seemingly rock-solid cases, but the facts are torturously complex and clear moral imperatives extraordinarily difficult to draw. Advocates of Taiwanese independence will note that the Taiwanese "speak a different language" and that Taiwan was "part of China" for less than 10% of China's recorded history. A defender of the Chinese case will counter that the language spoken in Taiwan is no more different from the language spoken in Beijing that that spoken in Canton or Xiamen or Shanghai or any other of dozens of unimpeachably Chinese cities in which a dialect other than Mandarin is spoken. Moreover, Taiwan came under the administration of Beijing in 1687, making the history of "Chinese Taiwan" longer than that of the United States.
Perhaps the most salient fact that must be kept in mind by U.S. policymakers is evinced by the recent actions of the National People's Congress. Though the PRC remains an authoritarian state, the NPC is the institution within that system most responsive to the democratic impulses of the Chinese citizenry. The cold, hard fact is that the legislation drafted by the NPC most likely reflects the passionately held opinion of the vast majority of ordinary people in the People's Republic of China. Many in China are deeply disatisfied with their government, but they remain at the same time zealously nationalistic. The reunification of mainland China with Taiwan is a sacred cause of Chinese nationalism, and has been since Taiwan was ceded to Japan (after defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War) in 1895.
Three summers ago I had an encounter in Nanjing which helped illustrate some of the situation for me. I was invited to the opening of a chic new night-spot by a young man, one of China's new entrepreneurs. The interior was lavishly decorated in the height of "bourgeois decadence (the kicker were the pornographic tiles airbrushed over the urinals in the men's lavatory). Posters adorned the walls in which quotations from Chairman Mao had been edited to turn them into dirty jokes. An old surplus army truck had been turned into a stage on which bands performed ear-splitting rock music. As I sat and watched one of the bands I noticed that along the side of the truck had been spray-painted a slogan: "We will definitely liberate Taiwan!" The young owner noticed me reading it and smiled proudly, declaring, "I painted that!"
Taiwan is a robust young democracy and must be protected. At the same time, U.S. leaders must understand that a declaration of independence by Taiwan will mean certain war. No Chinese government, whether the current Communist regime or some future democratic administration, could survive the tidal wave of public outrage that would occasion a Taiwanese declaration of independence. Because independence would mean war and war leaves no good options for the U.S., the U.S. must tread VERY carefully in conducting Strait diplomacy.