In my last article, I wrote about an idea to enhance better communications by having periodic meetings on cross-strait relations.
There were also two other thoughts that are a part of this "meeting" idea -- the overdue need to change the US' internal rules of conducting that relationship, and a question of how the US should manage a more intrusive effort to work with Taiwan on sensitive cross-strait issues. This article addresses the rules on conducting the "unofficial" relationship with Taiwan. Changing them would be an important step in the increasing necessity to have an established cross-strait dialogue between the US and Taiwan.
The rules were developed by the US when it changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. They were made up quickly and completely unilaterally, but based for the most part on what the US thought Beijing could accept.
Initially, the rules covered a very broad spectrum of behavior: Who can meet with whom where; the limits on using the Republic of China (ROC) flag; letterheads, license plates, parties that could be attended by American officials; not using the words ROC; etc. Gradually, sheer common sense from time to time raised its head and a decision to change or do away with a particular rule was made to the advantage of both the US and Taiwan.
The constraints under the rules cause inefficiency and at a high cost for the US, not to speak of indignity for Taiwan. The TRA and the Shanghai Communique, followed by the six assurances showed that the "Taiwan issue" was to be more than a short term problem. More important, the rules were sustainable only as long as Taiwan's authoritarian political system ruled.
When it was clear that the political system in Taiwan could not continue in its authoritarian and Mainlander-dominated form, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) took steps to lift martial law and allow a greater participation by the Taiwanese in governance. The direction former Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was to take was demonstrated in the handling of the student protest and national affairs conference in 1990, and that direction toward a pluralistic democracy grows even stronger under President Chen Shui-bien (陳水扁).
Throughout the 1990s, America was pleased with the direction democratization was taking in Taiwan, but the rules that had been formed by the US unilaterally were clearly beginning to show the need for adjustment. At the same time, China's growing international presence and Taiwan's important and globalized economic achievements was making these constraining rules even less sustainable.
Only one formal effort was made to adjust some rules, in 1994, with the so-called Taiwan Policy Review. The "policy" element was immediately established as meaning the rules of conduct only. Then that was further reduced to a few changes that pleased few, and was overwhelmed by the much greater number of rules that would not be changed.
This need for change was especially apparent during the tense 1995 to 1996 PRC missile exercises, where the dangers of narrow and ineffective military relations with Taiwan became so evident that a dialogue between the two militaries was imperative. This was done largely by the US Department of Defense with far less public airing than usually accompanies such changes. This continues even now as the need arises. One can see how well the military relationship has become more realistic with a minimum of public profile, though sometimes even that is jeopardized by publicity.
The new Bush administration in Washington saw that circumstances are making it clearly necessary to do the same on the political side. It should not be surprising. Even as early as the 1972 communique the US insisted on wording to show that the "Chinese" (not necessarily the "people") of Taiwan agreed with the "one China" phraseology.
With Taiwan's democracy now continuing to move in its own direction, and with America still trying to maintain a balance between the two sides of the Strait, America is struggling with policy adjustment.
Doubtless for the US, there will be more adjustments as needed, working more closely with Taiwan on avoiding war while supporting its democratic system. The biggest obstacle in moving in the direction of a more senior regular liaison between the US and Taiwan in national security matters, of course, is objections from China.
But Taiwan doesn't make it easier. Raising the frequency and level of communication tends to be seen in Taipei first and foremost in terms of high profile visits or publicly noted bilateral meetings. It is well understood that this is important politically in Taiwan, and in China, to demonstrate that Taiwan-US relations are close. That is important for Taiwan. Unfortunately, it is important for America as well, but in the opposite way. It damages the US relationship with China.
Finding a way that assures more effective senior level communications between the US and Taiwan without every meeting risking tensions in the Strait can be done. Videoconference calls might make lower profile meetings easier, but have other disadvantages. The best means of having regular periodic bilateral meetings on the subject of cross-strait relations in parallel with similar bilateral meetings between US and China on the same subject. The meetings would benefit all three players as each side gets accustomed to this dialogue and eventually, perhaps, on occasion could have all three sides participating together.
But a key element to establishing some form of dialogue between them should be the understanding that it is in the interest of all three sides that such a dialogue take place.
Nat Bellocchi is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and is now a special adviser to the Liberty Times Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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