Last week’s comments in the Financial Times (FT) by an unnamed “senior” official in the administration of US President Barack Obama expressing “distinct concerns” about stability in the Taiwan Strait if Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is elected president in January caused a storm of indignation among DPP supporters.
The race between Tsai and her main opponent, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), is a very close one, with the implication that any outside interference could tilt the game. It is one thing for authoritarian and undemocratic Beijing to meddle in Taiwan’s elections with money, political pressure and statements on its preference for Ma. It is another one for Taiwan’s principal ally, the democratic US, to do so.
Leaving aside the questionable decision by the FT to run an article based on the comments of an unnamed US official — knowing that doing so would play into the hands of individuals who want to influence Taiwan’s democratic process — the incident confirms yet again the institutional bias that faces Tsai as she enters the election.
The US Department of State has denied any involvement in the “leak” and reaffirmed its position that the Obama administration is neutral in the election. However, history shows us that Washington’s policy on Taiwan and China has often been marked by personal feuds, turf wars, secrecy — and yes, leaks to the press. Unsurprisingly, this latest incident points to the National Security Council (NSC), which has long vied with the State Department for influence over foreign policy.
Under the administration of former US president Richard Nixon, when the US took its first steps toward normalization of relations with China, then-US national security adviser Henry Kissinger spearheaded a policy that often left then-US secretary of state William Rogers in the dark. A similar situation emerged under former US president Jimmy Carter when the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, with then-US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski engaging in a battle with former US secretary of state Cyrus Vance and his staff. This pattern was repeated during the administration of former US president Ronald Reagan, with former national security adviser Richard Allen fighting it out with then-US secretary of state Alexander Haig.
Based on his reputation as a “consummate insider” and a “harsh political operative,” Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, sounds like he could easily repeat the exploits of his predecessors. While Donilon is unlikely to have been the senior official who contacted the FT, one thing is almost certain: Whoever did had Donilon’s blessing.
However, this latest incident occurs in a very different context. Under Nixon and former US presidents Gerald Ford, Carter and Reagan, accommodation with China was based on the need to counter the Soviet threat and Washington approached the matter from a position of strength.
Now that the Soviet Union has disappeared, the NSC is focused on stability in cross-strait relations, a position compounded by the relative weakening of the US vis-a-vis China, the result of a struggling economy and an overstretched military.
Consequently, pressure by Beijing on Washington to seek stability in the Taiwan Strait has more traction at the White House than in the past, which would explain why the quotes in the FT article read like they could have been written in Beijing.