Time to Bring the Orphan In From the Cold

The US should acknowledge Taiwan’s right to say no to China when saying no is in its national interest. Boxing it in is a recipe for disaster
J. Michael Cole

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, on Aug. 17, 2014.)

“We hope the Americans will continue supporting us, not just selling us … defense articles.” Thus spoke Shen Lyu-shun (沈呂巡), Taiwan’s top envoy to the U.S., during a recent interview with the Washington Times. After nearly six years or relative calm in the Taiwan Strait, and with the specter of more contentious relations between Taipei and Beijing looming large, unflinching U.S. support for the democratic nation will be needed more than ever. But the conditions that Washington is imposing for that support are not only unfair to the island’s 23 million people—they risk causing serious trouble down the road.

Shen’s candidness was refreshing, and there was little in what he said that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to disagree with. Rhetoric notwithstanding, in recent years the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration has tended to treat the U.S. as a partner of secondary importance as Taipei endeavored to ameliorate relations with Beijing. Since 2008, more than twenty agreements have been signed between Taiwan and China. Progress has been steady, which shouldn’t be surprising, as the majority of the issues that were resolved during that period touched on relatively “easy” matters such as trade, tourism, and joint crime fighting.

Now, as Shen rightly points out, with all that “easy” stuff behind them, future negotiations with Beijing will likely address much more controversial issues: politics, and the future of Taiwan. As this new phase in cross-strait relations approaches, U.S. backing for Taiwan will be crucial to ensure that it can continue to engage China with confidence. But as it does so—and there is no reason to believe that it won’t—Washington officials will have to avoid the temptation to force Taiwan to make choices that go against its core interests.

With presidential elections in Taiwan less than eighteen months away, and with Ma, who heads the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, Washington has understandably sought to learn as much as it can about the two main camps’ future China policy (Shen’s interview is no coincidence, nor is his pro-U.S. stance). Washington’s apprehensions remain the same: forced to shoulder global responsibilities from the North Korean nuclear program to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, the last thing Washington wants is to be dragged into a costly war with China, an increasingly important economic and security partner, over Taiwan.

Consequently, the White House has tended to be more comfortable with the KMT in office and has made not secret of that fact. Despite its policy of non-interference in the democratic process of its allies, it is widely accepted that the U.S. National Security Council sabotaged the DPP’s chances of winning the elections in 2012 with a leak to the Financial Times. At the time, U.S. officials were wary of candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), whose China policy was, admittedly, unclear. There is good reason to believe that Washington, with help from a select group of influential academics, will once again meddle in Taiwan’s elections, and that it will again side with the KMT. The only way the DPP can avoid a repeat of the 2011 incident will be if it agrees to freeze the “independence clause” in its charter and generally espouses a “one China” framework along the lines of the KMT’s legacy “1992 consensus.” And that’s where things can go terribly wrong.

Continue to the full article on the CPI Blog.

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