Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) wrapped up her recent tour of the US. Largely because of Washington’s high expectations for Tsai’s cross-strait policy, as well as the fact that she is the first DPP presidential candidate who can speak fluent English, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), sent his campaign director, King Pu-tsung (金溥聰), to Washington to “balance” Tsai’s trip. Facing electoral maneuvering by both parties, US President Barack Obama’s administration, on the surface, tried to remain unbiased, while influencing Taiwan’s elections in a subtle way.
In terms of “image-building,” “message delivering” and “public diplomacy,” Tsai achieved her goals. First, she highlighted differences between her and her DPP predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), by recognizing strategic divergences between Taiwan and Washington during the Chen era and emphasizing the need to rebuild trust and construct a partnership. She also pledged that future DPP cross-strait policy would be stable and balanced.
Second, Tsai distinguished her leadership from Ma’s by stressing her ability to work closer with US allies in the region and determination to take strong action to defend Taiwan.
Finally, and most importantly, Tsai dismissed the notion of the so-called “1992 consensus” as a fabricated concept and suggested replacing it with a “Taiwan consensus” arrived at democratically. She also pledged to continue the agreements reached by the Ma administration and its Chinese counterparts, provided Taiwan remains able to re--examine their pros and cons.
Nevertheless, Tsai encountered numerous challenges, particularly in her meetings with officials from the Obama administration and think tank experts. The major concern for the Washington establishment is the substance of Tsai’s theory of building up a “Taiwan consensus” if she wins. While Tsai talked of the process of generating such a consensus, the US expected more detailed elaboration.
Another worry is a fear that Tsai might misjudge Beijing’s willingness to work with a possible new DPP government. Though it is reasonable for Tsai to refrain from revealing her hand when Beijing has yet to show its cards, Washington anticipates a more concrete agenda behind Tsai’s cross-strait policy that could ensure a continuation of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
That explains why, after Tsai left Washington, a story in the Financial Times sparked a political fire.
The story quoted an anonymous senior US official, who attended a meeting with Tsai, as saying that “she left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”
Despite the US State Department’s immediate clarification that “the ‘official’ mentioned in the article is totally unknown to us and certainly does not speak for the Obama administration,” the episode demonstrated a divergence in views from different US agencies when evaluating Tsai’s cross-strait policy. And this faction tends to use the media to spin the news to influence Taiwan’s elections indirectly.
Coincidentally, the Obama administration sent US Assistant Secretary of Commerce Suresh Kumar, the highest US official to visit Taiwan in the past nine years, to Taipei while Tsai was visiting Washington. The timing of Kumar’s visit was also politically sensitive given that the presidential election is heating up in Taiwan.
Although the US administration said it does not take sides in Taiwan’s elections, such ambiguous and inappropriate interference in Taiwan’s domestic politics runs the risk of jeopardizing a fair, open and democratic electoral process in the upcoming elections.
There is no doubt that Washington often plays a pivotal role in influencing public opinion in Taiwan. Former US president George W. Bush’s administration used a series of open statements by high-ranking officials, including former US president George H.W. Bush, to warn the DPP government about the likely dangers of holding referendums prior to the presidential elections in 2004 and 2008. Beijing was no doubt behind the US’ verbal and diplomatic pressures on the Chen administration.
It is therefore not surprising to see some US officials duplicating that strategy to force Tsai to unveil more details about her cross-strait policy or to make clear “strategic reassurances” to Washington as the election approaches.
No matter whether it comes from a lack of internal coordination between different US agencies or if the Obama administration intends to help Ma get re-elected, such moves sabotage Taiwan’s hard-won democracy. The US should be neutral and not intervene in Taiwan’s elections, as well as ensuring a successful transition of power in January were Tsai to win.
Liu Shih-chung is a senior research fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Brain Trust.
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