US has not pivoted toward Taiwan

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Tue, Dec 13, 2011 - Page 8

There has been no shortage of optimism in recent weeks over visits to Taiwan by relatively senior US officials, with some pundits pointing to signs of a shift in US policy that would place greater emphasis on US-Taiwan ties.

The excitement stems from visits by US Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, who arrived yesterday on a three-day visit, and that of US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah earlier this month. As media have noted, Poneman will be the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan since 2000.

Commenting on the visit on Thursday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman James Chang (章計平) said this not only proved the solidity of Taiwan-US relations, but also showed that the US was honoring its commitment to send high-ranking officials, words echoed by Edward Chen (陳一新), a US studies specialist at Tamkang University, who told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post: “By sending senior officials to visit Taiwan, the US is assuring us it will not abandon Taiwan.”

However, the fact remains that no Cabinet-level US official has visited Taiwan since the administration of former US president Bill Clinton, making, in some critics’ view, the visits more theater than substance.

Conversations with the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and US Department of State officials have led Taiwan watchers to conclude that the administration of US President Barack Obama has orchestrated no such shift toward Taiwan and that it has no intention of doing so in the -foreseeable future. In other words, as one watcher has put it, Washington will continue to “send Taiwan to the woodshed one day and a few months later suddenly start paying attention,” choosing inconsistency rather than steadiness as the main underpinnings of its Taiwan policy.

Equally troubling is the fact that Poneman, who is scheduled to meet President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and other government officials, is expected to see eye-to-eye with Ma on nuclear energy, a subject that is intrinsic to next month’s presidential election. Wittingly or not, such support could be portrayed as partisan support for Ma, who is seeking re-election, and represent yet another symptom (and here let us simply mention the Financial Times’ leak incident targeting one of the presidential candidates) of Washington’s meddling in Taiwan’s electoral process. Washington will not admit to it, but as is often the case, actions speak louder than words.

Visits by the head of a -subordinate agency and a deputy secretary have very little lasting value and are likely to be relegated to inside pages of the nation’s dailies for a day or two before fading into irrelevance. Nor are they substitutes for policies that would truly reflect a commitment by Washington to reinforce bilateral relations with its diplomatic ally, such as making progress on the visa-waiver program.

It is ironic that despite being a good boy scout and not creating any headaches for Washington in the three-and-a-half years he has been in office, Ma has very little to show in terms of signs that relations between Taiwan and the US have markedly improved. The visa-waiver program remains elusive, as does what is perhaps the greatest symbol of a true commitment to US support for Taiwan, the F-16C/Ds Taipei has been requesting since 2006.

Beyond the lack of substantial support for Taiwan, some elements within the US government also appear to be siding with Beijing in pressuring Taipei to enter political negotiations with China, ostensibly as a means to ultimately neutralize Taiwan. Counterintuitive though it may seem, some analysts are now advancing the possibility that Ma’s controversial “peace accord” proposal was aimed at deflecting pressure from Washington first, and Beijing second, to engage in such a process. In other words, the proposal, which, as expected, had a dent in Ma’s approval rate ahead of the January elections, was not intended as a message for domestic constituents, but rather outside forces that have grown impatient with his “foot dragging” on unification.

How else could we explain the ill-timed proposal, which Ma and his advisers surely knew would have a negative effect on their campaign? By submitting the idea of a peace accord, but offering a timeline that goes well beyond his second term if he is re-elected, Ma likely sought to pacify external forces while minimizing the cost domestically, aware that the great majority of Taiwanese regard political talks with the Chinese Communist Party with great apprehension. A president who is in a hurry to enter political negotiations with Beijing would not have anchored the possibility of a peace accord in the distant future, which in Taiwanese politics, a decade certainly is.

A US government that pivots in Taiwan’s favor is one that will stop showing impatience with Taipei as it navigates the hazardous waters of cross-strait relations and unreservedly side with the goals and wishes of Taiwan’s 23 million people. Anything short of such a commitment, regardless of how many senior envoys Washington parades in the Presidential Office, will remain conduct unworthy of an ally.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.