Over the last few weeks, The Heritage Foundation has hosted two very high profile speakers from Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) spoke to an auditorium by video from Hawaii. The week prior, possible presidential candidate, Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) also spoke, in person. As Taiwan enters an election period, the back-to-back appearances offer an excellent opportunity to examine exactly what the appropriate role is for the US in Taiwan’s politics.
American commentators often point out that Beijing does not get a vote in Taiwan’s elections, and should not behave as if they do.
Indeed, Taiwan is not Hong Kong. It is fully self-governing. Lawyers can debate sovereignty and issues like the relevance of the Montevideo Convention, its definition of a state under international law and the relevance this has to Taiwan. However, in everyday language, Taiwan is a country — a Republic, and its people decide for themselves who leads it. Taiwan is not, for any practical purpose, a part of the People’s Republic of China. Anyone who believes it is has confused reality with the diplomatic speak many of us have adopted to manage relationships with Beijing.
This said, neither should Washington have a vote in Taiwan’s elections.
Americans should look at Taiwan’s electoral processes as they do those of their other friends and allies. They should concern themselves with policy outcomes, not personalities. It is not up to Washington to decide — as the Obama administration did in 2011 when it weighed in against Tsai Ing-wen’s first bid for the Presidency — which candidate is best suited to the outcomes it seeks.
It is up to Taiwanese voters to balance all considerations, domestic and international — including its relationship with the US and cross-Straits relations — and decide for themselves.
What is incumbent on the US is that it clearly lay out its interests in US-Taiwan relations.
First, peace and security. The US is bound to defend Taiwan. Taiwan can count on that. But, given that defending Taiwan is a sovereign decision of the US and one that will involve risking American lives, it is reasonable for it to set some conditions. The US does not want Taiwan to draw it into a needless conflict with China. Washington, therefore, takes best to Taiwanese leaders who are prudent, responsible — and inclined to consult with it on decisions that may ultimately implicate its armed forces. As they say in Washington, “If you want us in on the landing, we need to be on the take off.”
Second, the US supports Taiwan’s democratic processes. US government policy has long been that it will support outcomes in cross-Straits relations that the Taiwanese people themselves approve. Public opinion being what it is in Taiwan, under current circumstances, it is difficult to imagine consensus there in favor of unification with the PRC. So if Washington does not want Taiwan to provoke Beijing, it is also skeptical about moving too close to it.
Third, the US continues to support a liberal economic order, and wants Taiwan to be a part of it. Look, there is an extraordinary amount of debate in the US right now on trade issues. Much of it is, in fact, driven by concern with the challenge China poses to the order. Set this aside, and set differences between free traders like myself and the protectionist wing of the Trump administration. At the end of the day, there is a broadly shared interest in Washington for an open trading relationship with Taiwan.
Fourth, the US needs a Taiwan that is prepared to contribute substantially to its own defense. This means, it needs a ready military equipped to offer a credible, immediate deterrent to non-peaceful Chinese designs on it — something Beijing refuses to renounce.
Fifth, the US wants a partner in Taiwan that is a net plus for the international community. It prefers an outward looking Taiwan, one that will put its many natural advantages at the service of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” There is Taiwan’s democratic example — and now that it is ranked the 10th freest economy in the world, its economic example. But it has much to offer proactively as well, expertise in areas like disease prevention, humanitarian disaster response, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure. The US needs as many partners like this as it can get — ones that can inspire confidence and constancy. It needs a trusted Taiwanese friend in regions like Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
American needs should not be determinative in Taiwan’s selection of its next head of state, and Americans should not expect them to be. Washington will work with whomever the Taiwanese pick, more cooperatively or less, depending on the degree to which the new government serves American interests. Even if Taiwan elects a President that underserves American interests, however, the relationship will survive. It will survive because in Taiwan there is always another election. That, and not personalities, is what sustains our relationship.
Walter Lohman is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
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