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Why Taiwan finds Washington unreliable

Why Taiwan finds Washington unreliable

Over the past decade, Washington’s Taiwan policy has created unnecessary dilemmas for Taiwan’s political leadership. On the one hand, if a president of Taiwan is considered too provocative toward China, Washington, rightfully irritated over undue tensions, will freeze relations with the democratic island. On the other hand, if a president of Taiwan reconciles with China, Washington’s impulse is to neglect relations, confident that the cross Strait "problem" is resolving itself. It’s a small wonder why many Taiwanese believe that Washington is unreliable.

President Chen Shui-bian faced the former from Washington. While no one in Taiwan doubted that he would protect Taiwan’s de facto independent status and its hard won democracy, or fight for its international dignity, he lost the confidence of Washington and then his own people when relations with both China and the United States soured.

President Ma Ying-jeou faces the latter. He has made major strides in easing tensions with China. And while relations with Washington are not characterized by tension, they are almost non-existent. Ma has negotiated a free trade agreement with China, from which Washington can benefit by leveraging its close relationship with Taipei to enter the China market duty-free. But no U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement is pending. And, while China’s military pressure is unrelenting (not a single of the 1,000-plus missiles pointed at Taiwan has been dismantled,) Washington is taking its commitment to helping Taiwan defend itself rather lightly. Taiwan badly needs more F-16 fighter aircraft to recapitalize its aging air fleet. None seem forthcoming. This is all the more troublesome given China’s stepped up aggression against its other neighbors such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, and India. It is just a matter of time before Beijing loses patience with Taipei’s refusal to discuss its political future. Taipei will need to show it cannot be pushed around.

In addition, the people of Taiwan profoundly desire a greater international personality, but China heads off Taiwan’s participation in just about any international organization. Washington’s diplomacy, which can help Taiwan enter organizations where statehood is not a pre-requisite, has been languid.

The main tasks of a Taiwan president in a democratic system are threefold: maintain decent relations with China, warm relations with the United States, and increase Taiwan’s international status. A president who cannot do all three is doomed to failure in Taiwan’s fickle political system.

Washington has an interest in encouraging all three pillars of any Taiwan’s president’s success. It wants relations between Taiwan and China to be stable. At the same time, the United States wants Taiwan to hold on to its democratic status, even its ill-defined international status, until the day when China can be more reasonable in its approach to Taiwan’s future. Once China abandons its stubborn — and for Taiwan, unacceptable — stance that the only solution to the conflict is the absorption of Taiwan by China, many creative diplomatic solutions will open up.

It is thus incumbent upon the United States to reward Taiwan’s China diplomacy with bilateral initiatives that increase Taipei’s international status and help it deter China’s military coercion. Washington can start by highlighting to American businesses the opportunities Taiwan has created through its economic cooperation framework agreement with China. While it negotiates a free trade agreement with Taiwan, Washington should also send the U.S. secretary of commerce to the island with a delegation of leading businessmen to scout out new investment opportunities. Not only can the United States benefit from Taiwan’s closer links with the mainland, but more American investment on the island will also increase Taiwan’s international prestige.

Regarding military cooperation, Washington should sell both the additional F-16s to Taiwan as well as submarines promised, but never delivered, by President Bush in 2001. The F-16s will not solve every military problem but will signal strong support from Washington and send the message to Beijing that its arms build-up will not go unanswered. As a stealthy, survival platform, submarines are an effective answer to Beijing’s naval build-up (that is why every U.S. friend in the region is buying submarines in response to China’s underwater threat). Finally, Washington should energetically push for Taiwan’s participation in functional United Nations organizations.

A reinvigorated Taiwan policy will encourage Taiwan presidents to keep relations with China on an even keel while holding out hope that Taiwan will not live in international isolation. The purpose of U.S. policy should be to discourage unneeded cross Strait tension while binding the democratic island ever closer to Washington.