The Taiwan issue has been unresolved since the normalization between communist China and the United States more than 30 years ago. Many former officials and China scholars are asking today, what lies ahead for Taiwan and U.S.-China relations?
U.S. support for Taiwan is outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in 1979. It’s been a policy of supporting Taiwan with weaponry of a “defensive character,” and states that the United States would have “grave concern” should the Mainland attempt to impose unification by methods other than peaceful means, such as boycotts, embargoes, and armed force.
The U.S. policy hedges on exactly what the United States would do if Beijing tried to force unification.
Some believe that a continuation of this hedging policy affords the best hope for maintaining peace and stability in the region. One of these is Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Richard Bush, who spoke Feb. 6 at Brookings to launch his new book, Uncharted Strait: the Future of China-Taiwan Relations (Brookings, 2013).
Other American policymakers and scholars are rethinking U.S. support for Taiwan.
According to Bush, improved relations and stability between Taiwan and the PRC have ensued since the Taiwanese presidential election of Ma Ying-jeou and the return to power of the Kuomintang (KMT) party in May 2008 and Ma’s reelection in Jan. 2012 and the KMT’s diminished majority in parliament. Ma’s victory in 2008 put the government back in the control of the KMT after eight years of rule by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which had emphasized Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Ma won 51.6 percent of the vote in the 2012 election. He said in his victory speech, “Cross-strait relations in the coming four years will be more harmonious with more mutual trust and less chance for conflict. I must provide Taiwan with a sustainable and stable environment”
While the 2012 election victories were not as impressive as in 2008, they, nonetheless, indicate that a majority of the Taiwanese people approve of the “political stewardship” that Ma has given the country, says Bush, who is director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at Brookings (CNAPS).
Bush refers to the policies of Ma’s predecessor, the leader Chen Shui-bian as “edgy and sometimes provocative.” He contends that over course of the last five years under Ma’s and the KMT’s steady leadership, there has been a significant shift in cross-Strait relations for the better. He means better for mainland China, Taiwan, and the United States for maintaining regional stability, and reducing tensions and the likelihood of armed conflict.
“The reduction of tensions that Ma’s policies brought about calmed Washington’s fears and increased U.S. confidence that Taiwan’s intentions were constructive,” argues Bush in a Brookings policy brief, Jan. 14.
Beijing and Taipei signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June 2010, consisting of 18 trade agreements, setting the stage for a free trade area. Bush says that Ma’s engagement with the Mainland gave it a “large stake in peace that it would not risk that stake by coercing the island into submission.”
‘Someday China will become a democracy like Taiwan, but Taiwan will not abandon its democracy and become a second Hong Kong.’ —Former Taiwan premier Frank Hsieh
Bush in the introduction to his book discusses the opposition DDP which holds the position that Ma’s policies increases Taiwan’s dependence on the Mainland and abandons Taiwan’s claim as a sovereign entity. The opposition regards the increased economic activity as giving Beijing more leverage to impose unification on its terms.
But Bush takes the side of Ma. He praises the leaders of Taiwan and China for their engagement. “This allowed them to break out of a cycle of mutual fear and provocation that had trapped their predecessors for the previous dozen years,” he said at Brookings.
Taiwan as Democratic Example
Bush does not consider that introducing democracy to Mainland China could be the critical factor that ultimately resolves cross-strait relations.
Bush is disdainful of democratic government and does not see it as any kind of panacea. He says that Taiwan’s democracy that is still in its infancy may choose leaders who make decisions that distort “the popular will.”
However, following the Ma victory in Jan. 2012, The Epoch Times quoted Hu Ping, editor-in-chief of the dissident magazine Beijing Spring, in an interview with New Tang Dynasty TV (NTD):
“We would like to see cross-strait peace, but we all know that the CCP tyranny never keeps its word, so the key to reaching peace across the straits is to promote the democratization of mainland China.”
Former Taiwan premier Frank Hsieh told the Taipei Times, “Someday China will become a democracy like Taiwan, but Taiwan will not abandon its democracy and become a second Hong Kong. We should cherish and safeguard our democracy.”
Beijing constitutional scholar Chen Yong-Miao described to The Epoch Times several acts by Ma that undermine Taiwan freedom: “Ma cut funding for the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, repatriated illegally immigrated Mainland dissidents, and allowed the CCP’s mouthpiece news organizations the People’s Daily and China Central Television into Taiwan.”
Huang Qi, the cofounder of the China Tianwang Human Rights Service, expressed concern for the record of the KMT under Ma.
Huang told The Epoch Times that “the KMT has sought to please the CCP, rather than uphold truth and justice, and it seems to have forgotten the numerous persecutions and the suffering people are enduring in China, including such vulnerable groups as political prisoners, human rights activists, and Falun Gong practitioners.”
‘Even as [Taipei] sees value of enhancing Beijing’s stake in peace, it does not fully trust statements of peaceful intentions.’ —Richard C. Bush, Brookings Institution
China wants to end Taiwan’s separate political existence on terms similar to Hong Kong’s, that is, one country, two systems. But Bush says that Ma would not dare choose that path now because the Taiwanese public opposes unification. In the 2012 elections, about 55 percent approved of Ma’s approach and about 45 percent “remained skeptical or deeply opposed.” Approximately 25 percent favor Taiwan independence.
Even the hint of starting political and security negotiations between Beijing and Taipei has been met with a public reaction that “has been swift, strong, and negative,” Bush said at Brookings.
Meanwhile, China has shown no letup in its military buildup aimed at the island, particularly ballistic and cruise missiles.
With the continuation of a military escalation, Ma will see a need for a deterrent against China’s military threat. “Even as [Taipei] sees value of enhancing Beijing’s stake in peace, it does not fully trust statements of peaceful intentions,” Bush says.
Bush expects Ma in his second term to continue to pursue a hedging strategy that eschews the two extremes: unification talks and separation tendencies, says Bush. He is pleased in the way the U.S. and Taiwan policies have led to a reduction in tensions. But he notes some Americans are not on board with the old policy and are “rethinking U.S. support for Taiwan.”
One position is for the United States to abandon Taiwan as in the best interest of all parties. One of the prominent voices for this view, says Bush, is former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who predicted last year in Foreign Affairs, “It is doubtful Taiwan could indefinitely avoid a more formal connection with China.”
Brzezinski seems to be saying as China’s power grows, Taiwan will eventually become a contentious issue between the U.S. and China, and it is in everyone’s interest to accept the inevitable.
Bush disagrees with abandoning Taiwan. Even if Taiwan were conceded, America would still irritate Beijing with U.S. interests in ensuring access to the waters of the East Asia Sea that Beijing regards as its own sphere of influence. In addition, our allies of Japan, South Korea, and others have “much at stake in Washington’s future approach to Taiwan.” Our abandonment of Taiwan would not rest easy with them.
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