Time for broader talks with the US

By Shirley Kan  / 

Fri, Feb 10, 2006 - Page 8

Events last week were instructive for the state of triangular relations among Taiwan, the US and China. On the first day of the Lunar New Year, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) called for serious consideration of whether to abolish the National Unification Council and the National Unification Guidelines.

The following day, the US deemed it necessary to remind Chen that it "does not support Taiwan independence and opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either Taiwan or Beijing." The Bush administration said it did not appreciate what it called "surprises" from Chen, and reminded him of his commitment to the "four noes."

Despite what the US thinks, people in Taiwan, who believe that Taiwan is a country, do not think they have to consult Washington about such a matter and are surprised at the uproar in Washington over a mere suggestion by Chen.

Meanwhile, across the Strait, the past week saw China working in cooperation with the US, as well as Russia, the UK, France and Germany, in deciding the case of Iran's nuclear program at the UN Security Council. On Feb. 4, China voted at the International Atomic Energy Agency's meeting to support international pressure on Iran. Although Beijing agreed to "report" -- not "refer" -- Iran's case to the Security Council and has continued to oppose sanctions, this vote indicated some progress in cooperating with the Bush administration since Beijing's choice to "abstain" on a vote on Iran last September.

This progress came after US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick visited Beijing to stress the importance of the Iran issue, continued the "senior dialogue" over China's role as a "responsible stakeholder," discussed a visit in April by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), and even hugged a panda with all its unmistakable symbolism.

While Beijing has endeavored to cooperate more with Washington (for now), there appears to be a gap in communications between Taiwan and the US.

Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng's (王金平) stopover in Washington last month may have contributed a little to ameliorating bilateral communications even if the brief visit did not produce any concrete results. Wang discussed the controversy over the special defense budget (originally meant to fund submarines, P-3C anti-submarine aircraft and PAC-3 missile defense system). But there are other important issues that need to be tackled as well. These issues include trade and investment and, possibly, a free trade agreement, which require substantive negotiations and support from US businesses. Other issues that need to be discussed include the export of US beef and Taiwan's participation in international efforts to prevent an avian flu pandemic.

Moreover, the issue of the special defense budget is not solely a question of arms procurement per se, but also a question about Taiwan's self-defense capability, readiness and critical infrastructure protection in the face of an accelerated military buildup by China since the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996 (as stated again in the latest Quadrennial Defense Review).

Taipei's relationship with Washington is important, even if there are those in Taiwan who would prefer to turn to China or to settle cross-strait relations in another way. The rhetoric in Taiwan about US arms sales has been increasingly negative and even anti-American, while some policymakers in the US have questioned Taiwan's commitment to its own self-defense.

With some new faces in key posts representing the people of Taiwan and the US, incuding Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Yu Shyi-kun, Minister of Foreign Affairs James Huang (黃志芳), and a new American Institute in Taiwan director, it might be time for a re-engagement between Taiwan and the US.

A focus on closer engagement between Taipei and Washington would redirect the worn-out arguments and blame game over the "communication" issue since 2002. Rather than arguing over "communication," the two sides could engage in a broader dialogue on common interests, speak with greater clarity (such as on arms sales), meet at higher levels (possibly with the first Cabinet-level visit under US President George W. Bush), strengthen ties between lawmakers, and promote collaboration between businesses (possibly through the American Chamber of Commerce and US-Taiwan Business Council).

So, these are questions for all Taiwanese leaders, be they green, blue or other colors. The DPP has young, dynamic and passionate individuals working hard for Taiwan's democracy. The KMT has experience from decades of ruling and defending Taiwan's people. What kind of relationship with the US does Taiwan want as it faces global challenges today?

Will Taiwan engage with the US to dispel misconceptions and pursue sustainable ties on a solid foundation of shared economic, security and political interests? Will Taiwan focus on the fundamentals for foreign investment and trade and look beyond political risks?

Last August, the Taiwan Caucus in the US House of Representatives invited Ma to visit Washington after he was elected KMT chairman. Will Ma accept the invitation? Will the DPP administration and members of the Legislative Yuan enhance substantive engagement with the Bush administration and US lawmakers?

After Bush entered the White House in 2001, Taiwan was of-fered a window of opportunity presented by the friendliest US administration since 1979 and supported by the Congress. That window had opened five years ago. As the US assesses a changing China and recalibrates US policy, so too will the administration and Congress assess Taiwan, even if not under a formal policy review as it did in 1994.

Shirley Kan is a policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the US Congress. The views in this article are her own.