US-Taiwan Relations: Looking Forward

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US-Taiwan Relations in a New Era: Looking Forward 30 Years after the Taiwan Relations Act

By Alan Romberg, Distinguished Fellow and Director, East Asia program, Stimson Center

April 22, 2009

President Ma told us earlier this morning that the Taiwan Relations Act not only has been a key element in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait for the past thirty years, but that it remains a crucial underpinning of future peace and stability as well. He observed that it gave Taiwan the ability to move forward in cross-Strait relations in the robust manner that it has over the past year because it provided Taipei the confidence to do so without fear of being isolated or overwhelmed.

Although, as Richard Bush pointed out in an article in the China Times today, the Taiwan Relations Act is long on rhetoric but actually mandates very little, I don’t really disagree with President Ma. But I think what really matters is not the words of the TRA but the fundamental U.S. policy that the TRA has symbolized, and continues to symbolize. And that policy has been extremely consistent, even though its execution has required adjustments—sometimes major adjustments—depending on Beijing or Taipei’s actions that might have seemed to threaten to unilaterally change the status quo and thus upset peace and stability.

And that is the point. The American “one China” policy—quite different, of course, from the PRC’s “one China” principle—has served eight presidents very well, steering away from advocacy regarding outcomes but focusing instead on what has mattered far more—indeed what has been a vital American national strategic interest—the maintenance of peace and stability.

Some people, especially in the Mainland and Taiwan but some in the United States as well, think that the United States is nervous—or maybe that it should be nervous—about the current course of cross-Strait relations. They allege that we worry that if the two sides of the Strait pull too close together, this will compromise American strategic interests. You need a U.S. Government official to state it with authority, but based on numerous public statements by administration officials, I have no hesitancy in saying that is not a U.S. concern.

If unification were on the table, we would need to have a serious conversation with Taipei to understand where it was heading. Even then it is my firm belief that we would not try to stand in the way of a decision by Taiwan to move in that direction.

But the hard fact is that unification not only is not on the table today, it will not be on the table for as far as the mind’s eye can see. And the interesting thing about the current situation is that, while Beijing clearly retains the ultimate goal of unification—or reunification, as they would call it—that delay is OK with them. They understand that trying to force a solution on Taiwan would become their own worst nightmare, creating an uncontrollable situation that would disrupt their economic modernization plans, spoil their relationships not only in Asia but throughout the world, and undermine their security—even if they were able to succeed in the short run. But of course trying to force a solution would not be assured of success, and it could go beyond disruption to fomenting a war, and I don’t need to rehearse the tragic consequences of that, not only for the PRC but for all of us.

So long as Taiwan is not moving in the direction of de jure independence and constitutional change, President Hu Jintao has introduced a strong element of patience into the equation. Indeed, his six-point proposal of last December 31 really only makes sense if one assumes that unification is not on the table now and that it will not be for a very long time to come.

So on those grounds, the notion that the United States is concerned should be dismissed.

On economic grounds, as well, the concern is unreal. Might there be an American concern to be able to participate, for example, in scheduled cross-Strait airline routes? Yes, and I think that both Taipei and Beijing need somehow to factor that into their thinking. But that is not a vital national security interest that will drive the United States to oppose what is going on. It is an important and legitimate commercial consideration that merits close attention.

In the meantime, American firms invested and operating in Taiwan would benefit from closer cross-Strait economic links.

Some in Taiwan have expressed concern that the United States may be taking sides in internal politics on the island. In the sense of backing one party or the other, I think this charge is not justified. But during the height of turmoil during former president Chen Shui-bian’s tenure, it was made very clear that, while Mr. Chen’s party did not matter, his policies did. So even though the United States supported Taiwan’s democracy and was careful not take political sides in domestic contests, Washington expressed its views—forcefully—when American interests were at stake. And I believe it will continue to do so if put in the same position in the future.

One can hardly predict with confidence that every policy of Ma Ying-jeou’s will meet with American approval. And when a policy does not, I think everyone can rest assured that the U.S. Government will work to ensure American interests are upheld, be they commercial or any other interests.

But frankly what would surprise me is if there were a sharp change of strategic direction in Taiwan that would arouse strong American concern and disapproval. Look at what Ma has done in pursuit of greater “international space,” a goal that has long been on American minds and that has stimulated the American policy of seeking to ensure that Taiwan’s voice is heard. He has set aside issues of sovereignty—not abandoned them but, for the purposes of his efforts to gain a perch in organizations whose work affects Taiwan’s well-being, set them aside—basing his approach, instead, on finding pragmatic ways to give Taiwan such a role, and the Taiwan people such benefits, in a wide array of substantive areas.

What if Mr. Ma opts to try to negotiate a cross-Strait peace accord, something he has often spoken about in the past and that was on Hu Jintao’s list of desiderata in December? Would this cross some notional American “red line”?

I suppose if one wants to fantasize about all the theoretical possibilities of the PLA stationing forces in Taiwan, using Taiwan’s bases and harbors to project power, removing Taiwan from the list of true democracies, well, then yes perhaps that would cross some American “red lines” and occasion a rethinking of U.S. policy. But no one is talking about that and no one who is serious is thinking about it. It won’t happen.

Nonetheless, wouldn’t a peace accord—difficult to achieve but let’s assume one is possible—wouldn’t a peace accord lead to reduced Taiwan defense efforts and a weakened U.S. security relationship with the island, including reduced arms sales? My own view is that unless and until there is actual unification, in some way, shape or form the PLA will maintain a deterrent capability against the possibility of a future Taiwan administration pushing for formal independence. And as long as that is the case, Taiwan will have a basic and legitimate need for self-defense capabilities and a strong security relationship with the United States.

Will these positions and relationships look exactly the way they do today? I certainly hope not. The sense of threat that all of those missiles across the Strait pose for Taiwan is not conducive to the kind of cooperation that both sides want and that is needed to assure lasting peace and stability. But even though the United States will make decisions on what it will ultimately sell to Taiwan, it is not the United States, it is the people and leaders of Taiwan who will decide at the end of the day what they will buy. We can still try to influence that in ways that we believe contribute at the same time to both Taiwan’s military defense and to the reduction of cross-Strait tensions. But we cannot and will not seek to make those decisions for Taipei.

If Beijing wants to affect how Taiwan views its self-defense, including what arms it purchases, then the PRC is going to have to make adjustments that reduce the sense of threat, not come running to Washington to complain if we sell arms or meet with Taiwan to talk about such issues.

Keep in mind that for years the United States has argued that arms sales to Taiwan contributed to confidence in Taipei that they could deal with the Mainland, and that for just as many years Beijing argued that, even as the overall military balance was shifting in the PRC’s favor, arms sales encouraged Taiwan independence elements. In my mind, neither of these things was true: we didn’t provide confidence to Taiwan to deal with the Mainland over the past decade because, in the most fundamental sense, Taipei wasn’t interested in such engagement. And I have yet to see any evidence that Taiwan independence advocates were emboldened by a single arms sale.

What is important now, however, is that U.S. sales to Taiwan actually do contribute to the necessary confidence for Taipei to move ahead with Beijing, and the results are likely to be very positive for both sides of the Strait as well as for American national interests.

There obviously is a tension between the maintenance of such relationships between the United States and Taiwan, on the one hand, and the sincere commitment by the United States, on the other hand, not to have official—much less diplomatic—relations with Taiwan. Some people think we haven’t done it very well. I would beg to disagree. I don’t think the record is perfect, but I think that the U.S. contribution to the maintenance of peace and stability in a context where neither side has moved to unilaterally change the fundamental status quo has been one of the most successful efforts in American foreign policy in what has otherwise sometimes been a rather dismal picture.

One can hardly expect Beijing to give the United States thanks for what it has done. But I don’t think there is any doubt that the PRC actually realizes that American relations with Taiwan have on more than one occasion brought the situation back from the brink of crisis and that, overall, strong U.S. ties with Taiwan are a force for peace and stability, not for provocation. I think it was especially the case that U.S. efforts were appreciated in the controversy over the UN referendum in 2007 and 2008. Having the U.S. play such a role has not always been a pleasant experience for all concerned, but the results speak for themselves.

As we look ahead, I believe that U.S.-Taiwan relations will continue to grow stronger even as they retain their unofficial character and U.S. policy takes great care not to involve itself in the nature of cross-Strait relationships beyond assuring that they are peaceful and stable. The United States will continue to support the current thrust of Taipei’s policy across the Strait because the policy serves the interests of sustaining Taiwan’s democracy, prosperity and security and a cross-Strait relationship that contributes to these ends.

One cautionary note. The success of Ma’s policies—and really of our own—will depend on Beijing’s continued, indeed growing, willingness to respond positively to what President Hu Jintao has properly called an historic opportunity. We all know that the PRC has been cautious, unsure of where Ma was heading and what the consequences of reasonable flexibility today might be for a future situation when the DPP returns to power.

My sense is that, over the past year, Beijing has gained confidence that Ma is sincere in his effort to operate on a pragmatic basis rather than challenging the Mainland through some subtle subterfuge over the issue of sovereignty. He obviously has not yielded his position on ROC sovereignty—any more than Beijing has yielded its stand. But he has not made assertion of sovereignty a necessary element in his dealings with Beijing or in his striving for greater international space. Some people in Taiwan have vocally disagreed with that judgment, as is of course their right and even, in light of their strong views, their democratic duty. But as far as I can tell, the people of Taiwan by and large do not disagree with the government; despite a current effort to challenge the validity of a recent poll showing overwhelming support for the proposed cross-Strait economic framework agreement, a series of polls has shown that the people have supported Ma’s cross-Strait policies by fairly large margins.

We know, of course, that the fate of the economy will be the most important key to the success or failure of the current administration to remain in power. (One might note that Taiwan is not the only place where this is true.) But cross-Strait relations will likely be an important element in how the economy does—and whether resources and energy will have to be distracted from the basic tasks of recovery and revitalization or, on the other hand, Taipei’s economic program will have an augmented effectiveness. And continuing close Taiwan-U.S. relations, based on trust and common interests, will be an important element, in turn, in helping to bring success to Taiwan’s efforts to harness cross-Strait relations to the benefit of the people in Taiwan as well as of the rest of us.

So I would close on a very upbeat note about the future of U.S.-Taiwan relations. However one views the authority of the TRA as prescribing U.S. behavior, the fact is that the spirit that animated it in 1979 remains very much alive today and will help to give expression to the strong sense of common values and common interests between the United States and the people of Taiwan.

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