A check sheet for Obama's Taiwan test
By Bonnie S Glaser
Taiwan remains one of the most sensitive and divisive issues between the United
States and China. What should Chinese President Hu Jintao expect from Barack
Obama when he is president on this critical issue? Until the new president is
sworn in and key personnel are confirmed, the new administration’s policy will
Moreover, the overall framework as well as detailed policies will emerge
gradually; a comprehensive policy statement on Taiwan is unlikely to be issued.
Nevertheless, it may be useful to make some predictions. Below are eight policy
objectives that are likely to be pursued by the Obama administration. They
musings of an independent scholar and interested observer with no special
inside knowledge or access to the president-elect.
1. Promote positive-sum relations among the US, China, and Taiwan
Under President Obama, the US will seek to alter the zero-sum nature of
relations among the US, China, and Taiwan that has often prevailed in the past.
Improvement in mainland-Taiwan ties will be welcomed and encouraged, perhaps
even more so than under President George W Bush. Cooperation between Beijing
and Washington will not come at Taiwan’s expense. Stronger US-Taiwan relations
will not be aimed at pressuring China. The creation of positive-sum
relationships will be the overarching strategic goal that guides specific
policy formulation. This adjustment will be carried out because doing so serves
American security interests.
2. Repair and strengthen US-Taiwan relations
Taipei and Washington are working to repair their relations, which were badly
frayed during former president Chen Shui-bian’s second term in office. China
should expect the US to take steps to bolster US-Taiwan relations, but this
should not be misconstrued as intended to slow or impede progress in
cross-strait ties. The maintenance of strong US-Taiwan relations is in the
interest of the United States. Taiwan is the United States’ ninth-largest
trading partner; Taiwan’s two-way trade with the United States was $58 billion
in 2007. Pursuant to the Taiwan Relations Act, which is US domestic law, the US
provides Taiwan with arms of a defensive character and maintains the capacity
to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize
the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
Moreover, the US has an abiding interest in Taiwan’s advancement as a vibrant
Staunch US support for Taiwan is especially important to provide Taiwan’s
President Ma Ying-jeou with confidence to continue to negotiate with Beijing in
an effort to achieve a more stable and sustainable modus vivendi. Look
for the resumption of visits to Taiwan by US Cabinet officials responsible for
such issues as trade, agriculture, transportation, and energy, which were
suspended during Chen Shui-bian’s tenure due to friction between Taipei and
Washington. In addition, bilateral economic agreements may be signed, for
example to promote bilateral investment and end double taxation. Ma Ying-jeou
can be expected to receive far better treatment during transit stops in the US
than Chen experienced in his latter years in office, but transits will still be
guided by the principles of providing for the safety, comfort, convenience, and
dignity of Taiwan’s president.
3. Encourage further improvement in cross-strait relations
The Obama administration will seek to dispel suspicions on both sides of the
strait that US interests are not served by an easing of mainland-Taiwan
tensions. The decade-long hiatus in cross-strait dialogue was dangerous: it
resulted in greater misunderstanding and an increased risk of miscalculation
that could lead to military conflict.
The US will continue to encourage cross-strait negotiations that seek solutions
to problems and peaceful settlement of differences. No steps will be taken to
undermine the improvement in cross-strait ties. On the contrary, the Obama
administration will be cautious in making policy decisions so as not to derail
4. Make no changes in the "one China" policy, but possibly modify the rhetoric
The three Sino-US Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act will remain
the basis of the US "one China" policy. The Obama administration will also
continue the policy of not supporting Taiwan independence. US opposition to any
unilateral change in the status quo by either side of the Taiwan strait -
another component of the mantra that comprises the current "one China" policy -
may be dropped. This formulation was added by the Bush administration to warn
Chen Shui-bian to avoid provoking the mainland and dragging the US into a war
in the strait. Ma Ying-jeou’s pragmatic approach to Beijing and his policy of
easing cross-strait tensions make this statement no longer necessary.
If China seeks to convince the Obama administration to explicitly endorse the
peaceful reunification of Taiwan and the mainland, it is not likely to achieve
success. The United States will likely retain its focus on process and insist
that there be a peaceful resolution of differences between the two sides of
strait, while remaining agnostic on the outcome. It is up to China to persuade
the Taiwanese people of the desirability of an amalgamation of some form with
the mainland. The US will not press Taiwan to accept Beijing’s proposed
solutions. In that regard, it would be best if China abandons the effort to
promote "co-management" of the Taiwan issue with the United States.
5. Call for China to reduce its military deployments opposite Taiwan
The Obama administration will press China harder to ease the military threat to
Taiwan. Despite the resumption of dialogue between the quasi-official
intermediary bodies of two sides of the strait and the signing of six
agreements in the past six months, Beijing has yet to take steps to
significantly change its military posture toward Taiwan.
Ma Ying-jeou has called for the elimination of China’s missiles as a
precondition to engaging in negotiations on security and military issues. While
China cannot be expected to relinquish its deterrent against Taiwan
independence prior to the signing of a peace accord, Beijing can nevertheless
make goodwill gestures now such as freezing short-range ballistic missile
deployments, pulling back a number of missiles so they cannot be fired unless
redeployed forward, and modifying its military exercises in a way that signals
intent to lower the threat. The Obama administration is likely to support
military confidence-building measures in the Taiwan Strait that lower the risk
of accidental conflict and build trust between the two long-estranged
6. Firmly support greater participation by Taiwan in international organizations
Chen Shui-bian’s policy of seeking to join the United Nations and UN-affiliated
organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) under the name Taiwan
made it difficult for the United States to support expansion of Taiwan’s
participation in the international community. Under Ma Ying-jeou, Taipei has
adopted a more realistic approach that seeks meaningful participation for the
Republic of China in the United Nations and observer status in the World Health
Assembly, the executive arm of the WHO. The Obama administration can be
expected to fully back Taiwan in these efforts, as they are consistent with the
US policy of supporting Taiwan’s involvement, but not membership, in
state-based international organizations.
If Beijing can accommodate Taiwan’s participation in international
organizations that require sovereignty for admission and its membership in
international non-governmental organizations, then this issue need not become a
point of contention between the US and China.
7. Maintain a robust security relationship with Taiwan
US policy toward Taiwan under President Obama will be founded in part on the
belief that neither an insecure and vulnerable Taiwan nor an overconfident
Taiwan will negotiate with the mainland. Therefore, the US will seek to create
an environment in which Taiwan feels secure, yet has incentives to sustain
dialogue with Beijing. Toward this end, the US will take the steps outlined
above to bolster economic and political ties with Taiwan and support Taiwan’s
quest for enhanced participation in international organizations.
Bush’s approval of the $6.5 billion arms sales package removed the need to
consider weapons sales to Taiwan in the early months of the Obama
administration. However, arms sales will remain under consideration, especially
new fighter jets. China’s military posture toward Taiwan will be the critical
variable in any arms sale decision, along with Taiwan’s requests for defensive
weapons to defend itself against a Chinese attack.
Beijing should not seek a solution to the problem of US arms sales to Taiwan in
a US-China deal such as the one that Jiang Zemin floated at President Bush’s
Crawford ranch in 2002, which proposed a possible reduction in China’s missile
buildup against Taiwan in exchange for a reduction in US arms sales to Taiwan.
Rather, it is up to Beijing and Taipei to resolve this, like other matters,
through political dialogue. It should be kept in mind, however, that a
significant reduction in the military threat to Taiwan posed by the mainland
would likely reduce Taipei’s interest in purchasing arms from the US
8. Support Taiwan’s democratic system
The Obama administration will support a healthy democratic system in Taiwan
that reflects the aspirations of the Taiwanese people. President Obama may not
refer explicitly to Taiwan as a beacon of democracy as did President Bush, but
he will undoubtedly find ways to signal his hope that Taiwan, as well as other
regional democracies, will serve as examples that encourage the development of
greater democracy on the mainland.
As the 2012 Taiwan presidential elections approach, Beijing should not
anticipate any efforts by the United States to influence the outcome. US
involvement in Taiwan’s 2008 elections to discourage the passage of referenda
that could have resulted in cross-strait military conflict should be seen as
exceptional. Bluntly stated, the US will not work with Beijing to keep the
Kuomintang in power. That decision will be left to the Taiwanese people.
Bonnie S Glaser ([email protected]) is a resident senior associate
at CSIS and a senior associate of the Pacific Forum.