On New Year’s Day, the national flag of the Republic of China (ROC) was once again raised, controversially as it turned out, in Washington, at the Twin Oaks Estate, home of Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington. It had been 36 years since a flag-raising ceremony had been held there. Comparing the two scenes, separated by time, one cannot help but be moved.
The national flag, raised, then lowered, then raised once more, reflects not only changes in our own relationship with security, it also symbolizes the evolution of US-China-Taiwan relations, this three-way relationship that is perhaps one of the world’s most enduring stand-offs, the convoluted story of the regional and international politico-economic tactical game played between three powers since the end of World War II.
In 2011 an event was held at the Twin Oaks Estate marking the centenary of the Republic of China (ROC). Last year the national flag was seen and the national anthem was heard at the Twin Oaks Estate. On Jan. 1 this year, the national flag was raised at the Twin Oaks Estate. This series of events — the national flag and the national anthem at the de facto embassy — were symbolic acts aimed, on the one hand, at cross-strait relations and, on the other, at US-Taiwan relations, bringing into sharp focus the complex nature of the interplay between US-China, US-Taiwan and cross-strait relations.
Relations between Beijing and Taipei have gone from being full of tension to becoming more peaceful and stable, and relations between Beijing and Washington revolve around politico-economic and military strategy within East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, making for a very complex set of relations between the three countries.
Although China’s rise has placed great pressure on the US and its strategy in the Asia-Pacific region — leading to the US coming to view China as a major objective in its shifting its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region — with the continuous increase in China’s overall power coupled with the increasing need for more strategic cooperation between the US and China on many levels, it is also becoming more and more difficult for the US to try to rein in China using Taiwan.
Many commentators believe that, to a great extent, US-Taiwan relations are set to be decided on the way in which the US shifts focus to the Asia-Pacific. If, for example, the US cannot endure the pressure created by China’s rise, it might well choose to pursue relations with Taiwan that China would find provocative. If, on the other hand, the US believes it can create a new Asia-Pacific order that can accommodate China’s rise, it could decide to weaken relations with Taiwan.
However, to deal with China’s rise, the US is developing a third path that is more pragmatic than the aforementioned two approaches. This third path contains three aspects. First, while the US has no intention to abandon Taiwan, neither would it break with its “one China” principle in the interests of furthering US-Taiwan relations.
Second, although it would not cease selling arms to Taiwan, relations between the two countries of a non-military nature, especially economic and trade relations, would gradually play a more prominent role. Third, the US would encourage, indeed support, Taiwan in developing economic and trade relations with other economic entities besides China.
Due to the first facet, it is unlikely that our national flag or national anthem would appear beyond the confines of the Twin Oaks Estate in Washington. The second aspect means that, if the developments in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific result in the cost — actual and strategic — of selling military hardware to Taiwan becoming greater than what the US sees as the benefits it derives from these sales, the US might well adjust its policy on selling arms to Taiwan. For this reason, US arms sales should not necessarily remain as the major, or indeed the sole, source of a sense of security that we have.
Third, we should seize any opportunities that present themselves to enhance bilateral economic and trade relations with the US, and pursue talks on the subject of participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Looking at the way the situation could pan out, the nation cannot continue to place all of its security hopes in US military arms sales or on the US’ Taiwan Relations Act.
Taiwan needs to find a way that would mean that the peaceful development of cross-strait relations would not easily, or cannot, regress, and then use this as leverage to seek participation in economic integration within the Asia-Pacific region or with ASEAN, inclusive of China, thus developing diverse economic participation overseas.
Only then would you have a reliable national defense treaty and real security.
Lee In-ming is vice president of the China University of Science and Technology.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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