During the previous decade Chinese authorities were apparently extremely unhappy with then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). In mid-2005 then--Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and then a month later People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) visited China.
Itineraries were designed to highlight the common historical bonds between the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) and the KMT. The voyage was meant to be symbolic, rather than a political strategy. Lien’s visit was already planned a year earlier when Lien was expected to win the presidential election.
However, Lien failed for the second time and Chen was re-elected. Lien, who made his career through KMT nominations, still went to meet the Chinese leaders, although without much leverage and only a few weeks after Beijing’s adoption of its hostile “Anti-Secession” Law (allowing China to attack Taiwan should it move toward formal independence). One of the common goals of the CCP and KMT was to isolate Chen to undermine his position and pro-independence politics.
The visit’s immediate fallout for the KMT was evident in opinion polls, which swung favorably toward Lien’s conciliatory gesture. However, there were no major results for Taiwan — like dropping the “one China” precondition for cross-strait negotiations, renouncing the use of force against Taiwan, etc.
Even worse, as Sha Zukang (沙祖康), the outspoken former Chinese ambassador to the UN Office at Geneva and the current head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said: “Taiwan is a Chinese province. Ask chairman Lien and chairman Soong, and they will tell you the same thing.”
In terms of concrete political gains for Taiwan, Lien and Soong’s 2005 visits were dead on arrival. Neither visit seemed to narrow the political division (although it might have recently earned Lien Beijing’s “Confucius Peace Prize”). The missile buildup and international isolation of Taiwan pursued by the Chinese authorities continued. This lack of goodwill might have shown the KMT a few years ago what was obvious to many observers — that too conciliatory politics across the Taiwan Strait is a dead-end street for Taiwan.
The visits’ long-term aftermath was still being felt when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was elected in May 2008. During his campaign, Ma promised to promote economic cooperation with China, which after the election became largely a political agenda. Ma’s diplomacy has been conducted beyond the supervision of democratic institutions. Ma’s all-out engagement and anti-sovereignty policy, which bypasses the government and official institutions, enjoys the support of a shrinking percentage of the populace.
Two years after Ma assumed the presidency, voters gave him a red card in last November’s five special municipality elections. This was partly because of Ma’s unpopular cross-strait policy and it leaves Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on the rise.
What does all this mean for US President Barack Obama’s administration? How can the US profit from the recent developments? Now is a good time to change Washington’s outdated policy on Taiwan, which is based on three decades-old communiques that originate during the height of the Cold War. This approach satisfies neither Washington, Taipei nor Beijing.
Since neither Chen’s nor Ma’s approach worked, some limited US correction would help. The Obama administration might do it the Chinese way and reach out to the DPP to initiate a dialogue by inviting high-ranking DPP members, preferably Tsai and her advisors, to Washington and receiving them in government buildings. Also let the DPP members meet with the Taiwanese community in the US and speak to the US media and public to show that there is an alternative to what Beijing claims about Taiwan.
This policy should be accompanied by White House and Department of State or Department of Defense officials traveling to Taipei. There have been frequent calls for such actions. In addition to passing the Murkowski amendment to the Taiwan Relations Act in 1994, the US Congress also adopted conference report PL 103-326, which suggested promoting visits of high-ranking US officials to Taiwan, as well as the Taiwan’s participation in international organizations.
Four years ago the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations approved an amendment in the 2006-2007 National Defense Authorization Act to allow the legitimately elected leader of Taiwan to visit the US without restrictions. It stated that direct contact with Taiwan’s legitimate leaders, such as the president, vice president, foreign minister and defense minister, would be beneficial to US interests.
Despite this, a democratically elected president of Taiwan is currently unable to visit senior US officials in Washington and respected Tibetan Buddhist leaders have problems doing so. However, CCP general secretaries are able to visit the White House.
To seriously affect and improve cross-strait negotiations, the move on Washington’s part has to be bold. Why? Because this engagement only has advantages.
With regard to the Asia-Pacific, it would demonstrate the US’ disapproval of China’s belligerent politics toward its neighbors and provide evidence to US allies in Asia of the US’ commitment to the region. Also, in contrast to its disastrous Middle-Eastern engagement, it would prove that unlike China, the US has real soft power to offer. Finally, in relation to Taiwan, apart from the aforementioned update to the antiquated policy of strategic ambiguity, the US would demonstrate its understanding of the trends in Taiwanese politics and the emergence of Taiwan’s unique identity.
Implementation and execution of this policy should not be conducted with China experts, who are often heavily involved in business and consultation with US companies in China, but with Taiwan experts.
A first step might be helping Taiwan join peace-keeping and other activities — multilateral discussions where statehood is not required for membership.
This change would also send a very strong signal to the KMT that in addition to Taiwanese voters, Taiwan’s primary strategic ally does not accept surrendering a democratic success story to an authoritarian regime.
And once the DPP is in power, US backing would help it negotiate with CCP authorities and also lead to free-trade agreements with other countries. Moreover, it would show Beijing that Washington expects it to follow Taiwan’s example, not the other way around. This approach might also be stressed by not referring to cross-strait politics as “the Taiwan problem,” but as “the Taiwan opportunity.”
It is to be expected that Beijing would respond to such action with fury. The important thing would be for Taiwan and the US not to apologize, compromise or be sorry in any way for doing the right thing. The CCP understands and respects all too well a strong and self-confident attitude.
The solution here is — when CCP officials complain and threaten US authorities — to direct Beijing to Taiwanese officials and let both sides talk and discuss the issues. With US backing, this would be much easier for the DPP and the KMT.
Richard Zalski lives in Taipei and is a doctoral candidate at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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