Striving to divine US intentions

By Bill Chang 張國城  / 

Thu, Dec 08, 2011 - Page 8

Paul Kane, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, published an editorial article, To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan, in the New York Times on Nov. 10, suggesting that US President Barack Obama “should enter into closed-door negotiations with Chinese leaders to write off the US$1.14 trillion US debt currently held by China in exchange for a deal to end US military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan.” The idea that the US could choose to ditch Taiwan caused a sensation.

My own feeling is that Kane’s suggestion was akin to a practical joke made for its shock value and that it could have been intended to draw attention to the huge US debt. However, in light of the proposals made by some US academics’ for the Finlandization of Taiwan, a review of the Taiwan Relations Act and the 1982 Six Assurances, and the cancelation of US arms sales, the idea cannot simply be ignored by the government in Taipei.

Of primary relevance here is that these proposals have mostly been heard since 2008, during the period in which cross-strait relations have started to thaw. There was no mention of ditching Taiwan during the time the “two-state theory,” “one country on each side [of the Taiwan Strait] theory” and a referendum on Taiwan’s UN bid were broached, although Washington did complain to Taipei about those proposals.

To suggest that this idea is a result of factors related to the US itself, such as the relative decline in its national power, slow economic recovery or the reduction of its hegemonic role, is not entirely backed up by the facts.

The US maintains a leading international role despite its ailing economy because other countries still rely on it, and this need has not diminished over time. In terms of international politics, Western ideology has long had the upper hand, as seen in the “democratic revolutions” of the Arab spring. Whether Iranian and Syrian leaders face military sanctions is entirely up to the US. An “Arabic treaty organization” of the six Gulf Arab states is already starting to take shape. In East Asia, most countries, with the exception of Taiwan, China and North Korea, are striving to join the US--proposed Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP), and an “Asian treaty organization” is likely to also take shape.

In addition, the status of the US dollar as the No. 1 international reserve currency is now even more assured given the unfolding economic crises in the EU.

Militarily, since the US is slowly withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is now able to “return to Asia,” so as to maintain its international influence. As for China, the purchasing power of the European market is being undermined by the EU debt crisis and its own economy is preparing for a “hard landing,” courtesy of high inflation and oil prices. As a result, its reliance on the US market is expected to increase.

Despite the current economic downturn in the US, there is nothing to suggest that Washington feels the need to adopt a passive stance and curry favor with Beijing by ditching Taiwan.

It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that the idea is more a product of what Taiwan has, or has not, been doing. To consolidate Taiwan-US relations, we should drop the ideology that strong powers are always opposed. We should make the US realize that Taiwan-US relations are good for their national interests and that supporting Taiwan is beneficial to both sides. Taiwan has not done enough to adequately explain how Taiwan-US relations can serve US interests, or exactly why such benefits are irreplaceable.

Politicians in Taiwan, of both political persuasions, seem to be locked into a Cold War mentality. They hint that the US, in the context of a rising China, sees Taiwan as key to Washington’s containment of Beijing’s hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. However, at the same time the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is putting a great many of its eggs in a basket made in China and this could well lead to a qualitative change in US thinking.

When one compares the drawn-out free-trade agreement negotiations between South Korea and the EU, the US and Australia with Taiwan’s attitude toward the US beef negotiations, it is hard to believe there was no under-the-table political deal behind the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China last year.

In this context, the major concern is not whether the US will observe the Six Assurances, but whether Taiwan remains democratic. As such, the proposal of a “cross-strait peace agreement” could easily be interpreted as a signal on Taiwan’s possible departure from its reliance on the US.

As Taipei worries about whether Washington is seriously considering ditching Taiwan, it is possible that Washington is equally concerned about Taipei ditching the US. As the Chinese saying goes, “worms appear only when the rot has already set in.”

Now that the idea of ditching Taiwan is out there, it is perhaps a good time for us to hold up the mirror to ourselves and engage in a little introspection.

Bill Chang is an assistant professor at Taipei Medical University.

Translated by Eddy Chang