Clinton’s Asia Pivot

Comments made by prospective presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in a recent interview with a Taiwanese magazine may presage a more critical U.S. policy toward China and a warmer American attitude toward Taiwan
Peter Enav

It is demonstrably true that American presidential candidates have a habit of embracing Taiwan and fulminating against China during their campaigns. Ronald Reagan, for example, said in 1980 that he would restore official ties with the island, severed the year before when Jimmy Carter recognized the People’s Republic. Of course Reagan did no such thing following his election in November.

Yet even allowing for this precedent, it is still difficult not to be encouraged by (undeclared) presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent interview with Taiwan’s Business Weekly magazine, in which she criticizes President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) policy of moving Taiwan progressively closer to China, saying it could eventually result in a loss of the nation’s economic and political independence. Underscoring the point, she compares Taiwan to the Ukraine, where Russian separatists are hard at work trying to undo the country’s democracy, and return it to Moscow’s orbit.

“Economic independence goes with political independence,” Clinton said in the interview. “How far can you go before you lose your economic independence? Because it will affect your political independence.”

Adding that Taiwan has come to a “turning point” amid its headlong pursuit of closer ties with China, she made it clear that Taipei was facing a series of fateful decisions — decisions that will have a profound impact on its ability to maintain Taiwan’s democracy.

“Now you have to decide how dependent economically you become … How … do you handle the [cross-strait] relationship, if you say this far, but no farther?” Clinton said. “That will put pressure on you from China, if they want more, but you have to make these evaluations based on what you think is in the long-term interest of Taiwan.”

Two things make the Clinton interview noteworthy. The first is that it contains the most definitive comment ever made by an American of Clinton’s gravitas on the dangers inherent in Ma’s policies, and by extension, of the importance that Taiwan holds for the American stance in the western Pacific. Up until now, American officials have almost uniformly praised Ma’s China stance, while cavalierly excluding Taiwan from both the “Pacific Pivot” and the extension of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a potentially game-changing economic and commercial alliance in the region.

Clinton’s interview is also notable for its timing. Badly burned by China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, the U.S. seems more and more convinced that its longstanding hope of making Beijing “a responsible stakeholder” aware of its international obligations is not going to happen soon. While it is still too early to say that U.S. China policy is nearing an inflection point, there is no disputing that the beneficent China imagined by Obama administration officials at the beginning of his term is now a thing of the past.

Clinton observed the trajectory of this change up close and personal. As secretary of state, she blasted Chinese moves in the South China Sea during an appearance at a regional security forum in Hanoi in 2011, and in May 2012 she played a crucial role in negotiating the safe passage of Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) from China to the U.S. Having since left office, she has had little hesitation about criticizing Chinese human rights policies, including in her newly released Hard Choices, which lambasts China as “the epicenter of the anti-democratic movement in Asia” amid other negative descriptions of its heavy-handed censorship. While it is true that Clinton is now a private citizen, she is clearly an exceptional one, with a good chance of becoming president in two and a half years.

It would be nice to say that all of this bodes well for the future of U.S. policy toward Taiwan, especially if Clinton is elected. But Taiwanese and other China skeptics should be under no illusions about the durability of the U.S.-China relationship, which for more than 35 years has endured all manner of diplomatic, economic and political challenges, including military confrontations on the high seas.

It won’t be easy for a President Clinton to pivot away from this history. But as her fascinating interview in Business Weekly shows, it won’t be impossible either. She may be a private citizen, but her views on China cannot be dismissed with impunity. They are surely a positive sign.

Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.