Written by J. Michael Cole.
“We hope the Americans will continue supporting us, not just selling us … defense articles.” Thus spoke Shen Lyu-shun, 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 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, 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.
The problem with those expectations/conditions is that they would not only force the DPP to overturn its foundational principles and thereby ensure its electoral defeat, they would also lock Taiwan down a path that plays right into Beijing’s irredentist strategy (the KMT will have not trouble telling Washington what it wants to hear). Sadly, no amount of explaining on the DPP’s part will persuade Washington that independence clause or not, the DPP would not adopt “rash” policies that risk plunging the region into a war that nobody wants.
Washington’s insistence on this issue indicates a failure on the part of its officials and analysts to understand the new dynamics that are operating in the Taiwan Strait. The “easy” period is over, and we are now on the brink of entering dangerous territory, where the narrowing list of options goes not only against the wishes and interests of DPP voters, but also those of many KMT supporters. Washington’s paradigm still rests on assumptions that were developed when Hu Jintao was in charge in Beijing, when the Chinese leadership was content with the “direction of things” in the Taiwan Strait, which two successive KMT administrations provided. But even Hu, a “moderate,” wasn’t able to go beyond the “one country, two systems” framework for Taiwan, a formula that is now blatantly showing its weaknesses and incompatibilities. Under a much more nationalistic Xi Jinping, not only has moderation gone out the window, China has grown more far more intolerant of difference and increasingly impatient with the peripheries, as the White Paper on Hong Kong and “one country, two systems” made clear.
For many years the assumption has been that rapprochement between Taiwan and China would help transform China and encourage it to liberalize, if not democratize. Both the Ma administration and Washington bought into that belief. Sadly, things haven’t worked out that way. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hardened its control on every aspect of Chinese society, a process that began under Hu and that intensified under Xi. The belief, long espoused by this author, was that Beijing would eventually understand that “one country, two systems” would never work for democratic Taiwan, which would in turn compel the CCP to make a better offer, one that was more appealing to the Taiwanese. This view stems from the position that growing interactions between Chinese and Taiwanese would somehow “educate” the Chinese leadership and lead it towards more accommodating policies. Another school of thought—which includes a number of foreign diplomats based in Beijing interviewed by this author—contends that the CCP is incapable of imagining “otherness” and unwilling to deal with difference. As one foreign diplomat who had just concluded his three-year posting in Beijing told this author earlier this month, “I cannot imagine why any Taiwanese in his right mind would want to be part of China!” (Skeptics should ask Chinese activist Gao Zhisheng, who has just been released from jail, for his views on Chinese reform and whether the country is moving in a liberal direction.)
Now, should the abovementioned diplomats be right, it is clear that Taiwan and China are headed for confrontation. As the events surrounding the Sunflower Movement’s three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan earlier this year made perfectly clear, Taiwanese are growing increasingly apprehensive about the political impacts of closer ties with China—and that was only over a poorly fashioned services trade agreement! One can only imagine what the heterogeneous group of Taiwanese that comprised the Sunflower Movement—it was neither “green” nor “blue,” DPP or KMT—will do when they are confronted with policies that promote further integration with authoritarian China, which is most assuredly what Beijing has in store for Taiwan. Despite the electoral considerations that may have prompted Shen to tell what he told his interviewers, we cannot discount the possibility that even the KMT, which is keen on being re-elected, has realized that Taiwan will need U.S. support in the years of uncertainty that lie ahead, for the majority of its voter base would agree with the view that “no Taiwanese in his right mind would want to be part of China.”
By now it is clear that China is trying to change Taiwan, whose democratic way of life the CCP regards as anathema, and that Taiwan will not change China. If you don’t agree with this statement, ask yourself what would happen to the Chinese students in Taiwan (some of them participated in the Sunflower Movement) if they returned to China and tried to implement the ideas they cultivated during their stay on the island.
Although Washington might operate under the assumption that limiting the DPP’s room to maneuver—or killing its chances of being re-elected—is to the U.S.’ advantage, such a strategy is terribly short sighted. Independence, the “status quo,” and anything short of “one China,” is a trump card not only for the DPP, but also for the many KMT voters who would never agree to seeing their country absorbed by authoritarian China. Pan-blue voters might not be as vocal as their “green” counterparts on the subject, but that notion is very clear in their minds (less than 10 percent of blue voters support unification). The last thing Washington wants to do, therefore, is to deny those voters that safe zone. In fact, knowing what we know about the composition of the Sunflower Movement, it is clear that any move by the U.S. to constrain the choices of the Taiwanese (e.g., freezing the DPP’s independence clause) would only fuel anti-American sentiment on the island, which certainly isn’t to Washington’s advantage. The more the U.S. forces Taiwanese in a direction that they don’t want to go, the greater the risks of instability on the island. Repeats of the Sunflower occupation, which will certainly occur if the government makes any concessions on Taiwan’s sovereignty, can only further weaken Taiwanese society and invite Chinese intervention (on this aspect, recent developments in Crimea should dispel any notion that authoritarian governments such as those in Moscow or Beijing will be deterred by fears of retaliation or sanctions when acting within what they regard as their immediate neighborhood). Washington officials should realize that a strong, confident, and united Taiwan, one that doesn’t feel isolated or forced to make choices it would rather not make is in the U.S.’ interest.
In the current context, the best that Washington can do is to respond to Shen’s call for support in full—in fact, to go beyond that and to respect the right of the DPP to retain the independence clause, and to promise to not attempt to derail its campaign even if Tsai’s DPP refuses to adopt a “one China” framework. Beyond this, Washington should seek to dispel the notion, espoused by some, that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is nothing more than the expression of a U.S. “militaristic approach” to geopolitics. Undoubtedly, there is a military component to U.S.-Taiwan relations, one that should not only continue but that should expand to include démarches by Washington to curtail multi-billion-dollar Russian arms transfers to China which only contribute to further military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait. However, the greatest value of U.S. engagement with Taiwan lies in the multifaceted nature of the relationship, which includes rich cultural, economic, and ideological exchanges. It’s now time to take that one step further, with Washington acknowledging Taiwan’s right—with the DPP or the KMT in charge—to say no to an authoritarian regime in China that has made it clear it doesn’t want to reform.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. His latest book is Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan.