Briefing the press corps prior to a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Washington this week, US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon made extra efforts to avoid mentioning Taiwan, leading some media to conclude that Taiwan perhaps would not be on the agenda.
At a time when Beijing’s political weight is in the ascendancy and that of the US is increasingly in question, the last thing Washington should do is send signals of weakness — and avoiding a topic, in the hope that somehow Beijing would forget, is just that.
If Donilon’s press conference is any indication of US President Barack Obama’s strategy for dealing with Hu, it shows us that rather than seek to set the agenda on a problem that continues to haunt Northeast Asia, Washington will allow the Chinese leader to do so, at which point US officials will have little choice but to backtrack or use soothing language that can then be exploited by Beijing.
Instead of hoping that this time around Hu will not state his expectations regarding Taiwan (as if the matter were no longer important to the Chinese), the US government should take a firm stand by declaring its policy and making it clear that it is ready to meet any challenges on the question.
By attempting to avoid the matter, Washington places itself in a difficult position that invites aggressive and prying rhetoric by Hu and his delegation, which cannot end well for Washington and, by extension, Taipei.
This meekness once again stems from the fear in Washington, as elsewhere, of “angering” China when its cooperation is needed in pressing matters, such as currency valuation and the Korean Peninsula. However, true leadership does not shy away from reality or ignore difficult areas in the hope that problems will disappear on their own. Just as disease will not disappear by pretending it isn’t there, complex political conflict does not resolve itself by sweeping it under the carpet, however inconvenient the situation might be.
Whether officials mention or fail to mention Taiwan in the lead-up to Hu’s visit, it is almost certain that the Chinese leader will raise the matter at some point. In fact, its silence could be construed as an invitation to seek concessions.
The same applies to rumors that the US is waiting until after Hu’s visit before it confirms a US$4 billion arms package for Taiwan that allegedly includes the retrofitting of its aging F-16A/B fleet. If such a plan is in the making, Washington should not play hide and seek with Beijing and make the news a fait accompli so that the leaders of both countries don’t talk past each other.
Of course, there is always the possibility that making such an announcement prior to the visit could result in Beijing’s decision to cancel. However unfortunate this would be, we should never lose sight of the fact that China needs the US — and the world — just as much as the US and the world need China. At some point, and disagreements aside, they will all have to talk.
Furthermore, just as Beijing has red lines it will not cross, the US should have its own, and based on its historical foundations, the US ought to make freedom and human rights, and by extension Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and human rights in China, its own lines of intransigence. Wishy-washy half truths and obfuscation on what we are told remain core principles of the US just won’t work and in fact will make it easier for unyielding forces to open wedges in the US system.