It has been a couple of weeks since Oct. 4, when the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, held a hearing titled “Why Taiwan Matters.” A good moment to do a retrospective.
That the hearing took place at all is significant in itself. It certainly is an antidote against the noise from academic circles to the effect that support for Taiwan in Congress is waning, or suggestions by some academics in ivory towers that the US should reduce its commitments to Taiwan.
On the contrary, the hearing showed strong support for Taiwan and its democracy from both sides of the aisle: Across the board, Republicans and Democrats emphasized that Taiwan deserves more support from the US than it is getting presently. Members of the Committee unanimously criticized the administration of US President Barack Obama for not going ahead with the sale of F-16C/Ds, arguing that this is leading to a dangerous imbalance of airpower across the Taiwan Strait.
It is also significant that many members were unhappy that outdated, self-imposed guidelines prevent senior US officials from meeting their Taiwanese counterparts and prohibit high-level Taiwanese officials from visiting the US capital. The chair of the subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, US Congressman Don Manzullo, said: “It is time to end the ridiculous policy that high-level officials cannot visit Washington.” He added that cruel and autocratic regimes like that in Burma receive better treatment in Washington.
This sentiment is valid. These restrictive guidelines were established in the early 1980s, when Taiwan was ruled by autocratic rulers. Since then, the nation has gone through a momentous democratic transition and now has leaders who have been democratically elected. Is it not time to change our rules and enable better, and more direct, communication between US government officials in Washington and Taiwan’s elected leaders?
So Congress is certainly concerned over the mixed signals being sent by the administration. US Congressman David Rivera emphasized this in his statement during the Oct. 4 hearing. He said that Taiwan was being threatened by a China that is the enemy of democracy and freedom and that it was essential to send a clearer, more supportive message to the people of Taiwan.
This is especially important in the run-up to the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan in January next year. The US needs to ensure that China respects the outcome of those elections, especially if Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) wins. Especially so after China’s recent veto of sanctions against the Syrian government for suppressing the will of their people.
We might see a replay of 1996, when China fired missiles at Taiwan during the first-ever democratic election for a president in Taiwan. That crisis could have been prevented if the administration of then-US president Bill Clinton had made it clear at an earlier stage that China’s sabre-rattling was not acceptable.
As I have argued before, Taiwan is now a democracy, and if we want democracy to flourish in East Asia, the US needs to support and strengthen that democracy, instead of neglecting it and letting it wither in the corner of diplomatic isolation.
Nat Bellocchi served as US ambassador to Botswana and is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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