Ever since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office in 2008, the main guiding principle for Taiwan’s foreign relations has been to maintain close ties to the US, China and Japan. The nation’s relations with these powers are like three interconnected threads: When one is pulled, the others are affected and Taipei adjusts the length that it pulls a thread according to the situation.
However, it is a guiding principle, it is not set in stone. The evolution of US-China relations is like the turning of cogs: Once the main wheel — US-China relations — moves, the smaller cogs — the foreign relations strategies of Taiwan, the US, China and Japan — turn as a result.
Taiwan’s strategy has evolved within the context of China’s rise and the US’ “return” to Asia, and was underpinned by three assumptions: that China’s rise would necessarily heighten tensions between Washington and Beijing; that China’s emergence as a regional hegemon would produce regional friction between China and Japan; and that the US’ return to Asia would strengthen ties between the US and Japan.
Therefore, Taipei’s foreign relations strategy requires it to balance its relations with the other three countries. The government needs to be cautious when dealing with US-Taiwan relations, cross-strait relations and sovereignty disputes over the Diaoyutais (釣魚台). It is fine to improve cross-strait relations, but bearing in mind the political lines that cannot be crossed in regard to the US. Taiwan can improve US ties, but not at the expense of cross-strait relations. It can hold talks with Japan and China on the Diaoyutais, which Tokyo calls the Senkakus, but cannot overly side with China.
Given the mutual constraints in US-China relations, Taiwan’s three-way strategy, while a major step toward achieving its foreign relations objectives, undeniably hobbles its ties with China.
Last week, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) held an informal two-day summit, emerging with what Xinhua news agency described as “a new type of great powers relationship.”
Obama welcomed China’s rise, while China expressed the wish to build a non-confrontational relationship with the US. From here on, US-China relations are to take on a new character, evolving from the narrow mutual strategic partnership of the past to a more inclusive, diplomatic relationship between two powers. In addition, through cooperation on international issues, the political tensions between the two countries will gradually be alleviated. Therefore, as the US and China cooperate more, the importance of the Taiwan question and of cross-strait relations for the two powers will recede.
Naturally, this new relationship needs to be refined by confirming how the two countries are to cooperate on sensitive issues and how they will further cement their relationship as allies. Nevertheless, the US’ increasingly positive attitude toward China’s rise seems to be becoming part of the new international reality. One can therefore expect US-Taiwan relations to change too. Given this, the government would do well to consider the following:
First, political talks with China should not be seen as harming US-Taiwan relations. Second, strengthening Taiwan’s US arms procurements should not be interpreted as a step backward in the development of cross-strait relations. Third, joint initiatives between Taiwan and China on international issues should not be regarded as being necessarily against the US or Japan.
Faced with these changes, Taipei needs to do more than come up with a new foreign relations strategy, it should try to turn the developments to its advantage by using the rapprochement in US-China relations to promote cross-strait ties.
Tsai Zheng-jia is a division head at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations.
Translated by Paul Cooper