US politicians and military officers think that Taiwan exists solely for the benefit of -- or as a detriment to -- US-China relations. This blissfully egocentric attitude has been the source of much confusion in cross-strait relations, and could lead Washington to make a major miscalculation jeopardizing its strategic position in the Western Pacific.
The problem is that the US has demonstrated it has little understanding of the forces that drive domestic politics in Taiwan. Taiwan's relationship with China is merely one part of the equation for local politicians, and they do not score points by keeping their mouths shut about it.
Few legislators, if any, get elected based on pledging to "maintain the status quo." China just isn't an obsession for Taiwanese voters. But it is a polarizing issue that can at times be used to get people out in the streets.
So long as Washington's officials and think tanks try to analyze Taiwan through the lens of what best serves US interests, they are going to get it wrong. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, this mentality was on full display.
"I think that if that conflict were precipitated by just inappropriate and wrongful politics generated by the Taiwanese elected officials, I'm not entirely sure that this nation [the US] would come full force to their rescue if they created the problem," were the words of Senator John Warner, a Republican, on Tuesday. The senator was directing his comments specifically toward President Chen Shui-bian (
From the senator's perspective, Chen acted "inappropriately" because his decision complicated things for the US. Taiwan may owe a lot to the US, but this certainly doesn't mean that Washington can expect to dictate the decisions made by Taiwan's elected officials.
Imagine if Taiwan had complained about the US' post-Sept. 11 "war on terror" on the grounds that it undermined the US' ability to react to a crisis in East Asia. Imagine if a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator had told President George W. Bush that he had precipitated a conflict "by just inappropriate and wrongful politics" and that the US did not deserve the world's support because "they created the problem." Needless to say, this would not have made Taiwan a popular place in Washington.
Does Warner believe that politicians in Taiwan are somehow fundamentally different to their counterparts in the US?
Clearly Chen believes that he and his party stand to gain from getting tough with China, and the council decision was a part of this strategy. Surely this is not beyond the understanding of those in the US Senate.
Judging from the public statements of US officials, the entire council ordeal came as a complete surprise. Was there any excuse for this? Analysts, politicians and newspapers have been talking for weeks -- ever since Chen's New Year's address -- about the fact that the DPP was adopting a harder line toward China. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.
Unfortunately for the large number of officials in the US who would rather Taiwan just keep its mouth shut and sit dutifully in the corner, every indication is that local politicians will continue to shake things up.
So since some in Washington appear to need to have the situation spelled out kindergarten-style, here it is: Until (at least) the presidential election in 2008, expect cross-strait relations to be a headache. There are going to be some bitter political battles fought here between the DPP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and much of the fighting will be over issues that strike at the heart of Taiwan's relationship with China.
That will mean the US will have to be very proactive in dealing with Taiwan. Is it prepared to be so?
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