One month before the inauguration of president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the administration of US President Barack Obama should welcome her to visit Washington.
After her inauguration on May 20, Tsai most likely would not be allowed to visit the US for four years, or eight years if she serves a second term. In the meantime, Tsai just completed the important task of naming key individuals to serve in her administration, including the national security adviser, as well as ministers of defense, foreign affairs, economic affairs and mainland affairs.
Eight years have passed since March 2008, when Taiwan conducted a tense presidential election along with controversial referendums on Taiwan’s membership in the UN, which I visited as an observer.
Upon winning the election, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) quickly announced his desire to visit the US before becoming president. However, the administration of then-US president George W. Bush did not entertain his wish, despite US relief about the election and the referendums.
Ma is nearing the end of eight years in the Presidential Office. While Ma has been allowed increasingly unfettered “transits” through the US, he has paid no formal visits.
Now, as a model democracy, Taiwan is about to achieve another peaceful transition of power from one party to another. On Jan. 16, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai won a remarkable 56 percent of the vote, beating the KMT’s candidate, who received only 31 percent.
In a significant, unprecedented development, the DPP also gained dominance of the Legislative Yuan, having secured 68 out of 113 legislative seats, while KMT legislators were cut down to 35 members.
The White House promptly said that “the United States congratulates Dr Tsai Ing-wen on her victory in Taiwan’s presidential election. We also congratulate the people on Taiwan for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system.”
The US National Security Council (NSC) told the Central News Agency that the US has a “profound interest” in the continuation of cross-strait peace and stability and looks forward to working with the new president and leaders from both parties to “further strengthen” the unofficial relationship between the US and the people of Taiwan.
In any such strengthening of US-Taiwan engagement, it is also important to recall that the US administration promised the US Congress that there would be ways to improve interactions with Taiwan.
In September 2014, on the 20th anniversary of the Taiwan Policy Review of 1994, US Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and other members sent a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry, calling for an expansion of engagement with Taiwan.
In response, the US Department of State acknowledged that it continually reviews and improves the interactions with Taiwan, but did not refer to specific ways of enhancing exchanges.
A visit by Tsai to the US would be a step toward improving interactions with Taiwan. As the NSC’s statement noted, the US has critical interests in stability in the Taiwan Strait. As part of its strategic “rebalance” to the Asian-Pacific region, the Obama administration has recognized Taiwan as an “important security and economic partner.”
President-elect Tsai’s visit to the US would entail a concrete case of enhancing exchanges with Taiwan.
At the same time, this modest step would remain within the parameters of policy and not require a hand-wringing change in policy or a tortuous review of the decades-long “one China” policy on Taiwan.
US guidelines on the relationship with Taiwan do not allow its president, vice president, premier or vice premier to visit the US.
The Department of State allows such top officials to make transit outside of Washington, while there may be telephone calls with key officials and meetings with officials of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). The guidelines restrict only contact with officials in the executive branch and not members of congress.
After her inauguration, Tsai would not be able to visit the US as she has on numerous occasions as an official and a private citizen. She has been an important interlocutor for many years, with a pleasant personality.
As president, she will be restricted from substantive face-to-face meetings with senior US officials.
A visit by president-elect Tsai would not be simply symbolic. The US and Taiwan have consequential issues to discuss in numerous areas of bilateral or international cooperation. Questions might cover how Tsai would strengthen Taiwan’s defense and boost its defense spending, after years of limited investment in Taiwan’s self-defense under Ma.
Other defense-related issues might include how to restore a regular, rational process for US arms sales to Taiwan. Some officials and observers on both sides have criticized the broken process, whereby more than four years passed between the past two occasions when Obama released pending notifications to US Congress on major foreign military sales to Taiwan in September 2011 and December last year.
Even before the concerns about Obama, some members of congress criticized Bush’s “freeze” on arms sales in 2008. While military-to-military cooperation with Taiwan has been more robust, some officials on both sides have criticized the limited value of some dialogues, including senior talks related to security.
In addition, there are different opinions in the US and Taiwan about what should be the priorities of Taiwan’s military modernization and US security assistance for the changes.
Tsai and her DPP might have concrete plans for economic reforms in numerous industries. Taiwan’s voters have expressed disappointment in Taiwan’s economic situation, especially for younger people.
US-Taiwan discussions also entail issues in economic areas, including problems left unresolved by Ma such as Taiwan’s failure to abide by trade agreements on agricultural products. For years, Taiwan has expressed interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In addition, a critical question with serious potential implications for US interests concerns the meaning of the significant victory of Tsai’s Taiwan-centric DPP and voters’ rejection of the KMT that pursued close ties with the regime in Beijing.
The results in the presidential and legislative elections further corroborate signs of a fundamental shift in Taiwan’s political views. The political results followed two significant developments.
The Sunflower movement in the spring of 2014 showed the dissatisfaction of many younger people about Taiwan’s policies, including toward Ma’s approach on cross-strait economic agreements.
Then, people decisively voted against the KMT in local elections in November 2014. Major reassessments might be required about the historic trends in Taiwan’s political preferences and policies.
With the world’s attention to the increasingly tense disputes concerning reefs and islands in the East and South China seas, Taiwan can choose to contribute in constructive, peaceful ways in regional security. US officials often state that profound interests are at stake in Taiwan.
A bit of time can be invested in meetings with president-elect Tsai, as president Tsai may not visit for four or eight years.
Shirley Kan is retired from the US Congressional Research Service. This commentary is her personal analysis.
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