Written by J. Michael Cole.

More than three years have elapsed since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton posited the idea of a U.S. “pivot,” or “rebalancing,” to Asia in her article for Foreign Policy magazine. To this day, nobody seems to have a clear idea how to define the nature and shape of the endeavor in either quantitative or qualitative terms. An even more difficult question is whether Taiwan could, or will, play a role in the pivot, and if so, what would be the extent of its involvement.

Although several factors favour a role for Taiwan—its geographical location within the first island chain and a democratic political system, among them—integrating the island-nation into the pivot also involves risks and challenges that are unique to its situation.

Chief among them is the acknowledged fact that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not recognize the legitimacy of Taiwan, or the Republic of China (ROC), as it is officially known internationally. Beijing, which never abandoned the possibility of using force to “retake” the island, is already extremely sensitive to any signal of military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan. Moreover, even if they have dwindled down in recent years, China has threatened dire consequences whenever Washington announces it will sell defense articles to Taiwan, which the Chinese leadership regards as “interference” in its “domestic” affairs.

Needless to say, a more formalized role for Taiwan within a fledging regional security architecture, especially if there is a military component, would exacerbate apprehensions in Beijing that the island is part of a Cold War-style strategy to “contain” China and thereby constrain its regional, and perhaps global, ambitions as an emerging superpower.

Breaking Taiwan’s isolation

Under the prevailing conditions, it is therefore not surprising that as it maps out its rebalancing strategy, Washington has been oddly quiet about a possible role for Taiwan. Unfortunately, one unforeseen consequence of this dilemma is that it has contributed to Taiwan’s sense of isolation and abandonment. Such impressions are compounded, for example, by the fact that the U.S. is actively seeking to bring Vietnam, until recently a mortal enemy, into the pivot, while Taiwan, a longstanding ally, is snubbed—at least publically.

The growing sentiment that it is being left behind can have serious ramifications for morale within the Taiwanese military and society in general. Given that Taiwan probably does have a role to play in the U.S. rebalancing (intelligence sharing comes to mind), decisionmakers in Washington would be encouraged to better understand the extent to which this demoralization is detrimental to U.S. efforts within the region—for one thing, a weakened Taiwanese military could conceivably invite Chinese military adventurism or facilitate penetration by the PRC intelligence apparatus—and what remedial measures can be adopted to mitigate the problem. A new round of arms sales to Taiwan, which is currently going through the longest period without a notification to Congress on new defense articles since the early 1990s, would undoubtedly serve as a morale booster. In this regard, the transfer of decommissioned warships is not significant enough to play that symbolic role; something more substantial, such as combat aircraft or agreement to assist Taiwan with its development of indigenous submarines, would have better chances of having such an effect.

But arms sales, as we saw, are hugely problematic for Washington, whose fear of alienating Beijing over the Taiwan “question” seems to have markedly increased in recent years. Barring an unlikely break with this new “normal,” a new round of arms sales appears unlikely for now.

There nevertheless are a few means by which the U.S. can help re-energize Taiwan’s armed forces, give it a renewed sense of mission, and make it a more willing and reliable partner in the pivot. Although joint military exercises are probably too controversial for Beijing, the Taiwanese Navy and Coast Guard Administration (CGA), as well as law enforcement agencies and NGOs, should be invited to participate in multilateral exercises involving disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy, and search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, among others. Such exchanges could also begin on a bilateral and limited basis between Taiwan and Japan and progressively expanded to include other countries over time, including China, with which Taiwan’s CGA has already held joint exercises in recent years, with more planned for 2016.

Rehabilitation, then normalization

Although even such cooperation would likely irritate Beijing, there are ways to mitigate the anger, and the onus is on Taiwan. One thing that is needed is a major cultural adjustment on the part of Taiwanese diplomats who, along with legislators and media outlets, must show restraint in what they say and focus more on the substance than the propaganda value of Taiwan’s participation in bilateral or multilateral endeavors.

The tendency among Taiwanese diplomats to publicize any development that emphasizes Taiwan’s (or the ROC’s) legitimacy within the international community, and to give more value to ceremony than to tangibles, is perfectly understandable given Beijing’s successful efforts to isolate it over the years. The recent flag-raising incident at Twin Oaks in Washington encapsulates that phenomenon. However, a commitment by Taipei to not overemphasize its participation in limited bilateral or multilateral exercises would go a long way in reducing fears in foreign capitals that engaging Taiwan will cause them headaches with Beijing.

In that regard, Taiwan’s isolation is partly of its own making. Far too often in the past, under both DPP and KMT administrations, I might add, Taiwanese diplomats have burned bridges with their allies in foreign governments by publicizing bilateral engagements that were supposed to take place quietly. I have heard this complaint from a variety of foreign government sources, who have grown wary of their Taiwanese counterparts and generally think poorly of MOFA. Therefore, if Taiwan is to play the role that it should play within the pivot, it will first have to rebuild that trust. It will have to rehabilitate itself.

Non-military v. military roles for Taiwan

Given Taiwan’s situation, the purely military aspects of the island’s participation in the U.S. rebalancing to the region—such as intelligence sharing via, for example, the Raytheon Corp long-range early-warning radar on Leshan, in Hsinchu County—will have to remain largely covert. In this particular case, Taiwan will have to satisfy itself with the substantive qualities of the engagement rather than its propaganda value. For now, emphasizing a military role for Taiwan in the rebalancing would be unwise, as this would likely escalate tensions rather than contribute to stability, the purported aim of the pivot.

Though we still do not know exactly what form it will take, there is no doubt that for the pivot to be meaningful, it must have several non-military components. And this is where Taiwan’s prospects are most promising. Anti-piracy, counter-proliferation, SAR, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance and human intelligence are among the many non-purely military areas that will complement a sustainable pivot in future, and in which a role for Taiwan would presumably be less “provocative” or likely to cause tensions with Beijing. Through those, China and other countries could be gradually acclimatized to the idea of a Taiwan “spoke” in the emerging multilateral architecture, one that isn’t solely directed at China’s rise. Beijing may very well still oppose Taiwan’s inclusion, but it will be easier for foreign capitals to explain to Chinese officials that Taiwan can make substantial contributions to the global commons from which everybody—including China—benefits. This aspect of the rebalancing probably provides the best chance to normalize Taiwan’s participation in multilateral forums.

Beijing’s claims put Taiwan in a very difficult and undeniably unique situation. That is why its inclusion into any U.S. rebalancing plans must, more than any other potential U.S. partner, be handled with patience, pragmatism, and perhaps less pomp than Taiwanese officials and the public would like. This may not be optimal, at least not to those who rightfully argue that Taiwan is just as entitled as any other country to full participation as a member of the international community, but for the time being, pragmatism calls for a more subdued, though by no means less important, role for Taiwan.

J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei, and editor in chief of http://www.thinking-taiwan.com. Follow him on Twitter @JMichaelCole1. Image Credit: CC by Alan Yeh/Flickr.