Academic Shelley Rigger told a Washington audience on Wednesday that “the time is not right” for Taiwan-China unification and that Washington should continue its arms sales to Taipei.
“The possibility of unification in the future is not absolutely foreclosed, especially if there is some marriage-of-equals formula,” she said.
It was important, she added, for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) leadership to be able to tell “rabid nationalists” that they could not satisfy their demands at this time.
“To leave Taiwan with a depleted defense capability only tempts those nationalists in the PRC to ratchet up demands on their own government for some kind of decisive action,” Rigger said. “This, I think, is the kind of dynamic that could cause the PRC to miscalculate and to act against the better judgement of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leadership. The US has a responsibility to keep this table from wobbling, so that we don’t all fall down.”
Rigger, an expert on China, was speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars about her new book, Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse.
She said that members of the US Congress were looking for ways to rebuke the administration of US President Barack Obama for what they perceive as its “insufficient attentiveness” to Taiwan’s defense needs.
“There is a lot of unhappiness about arms sales, that Taiwan did not get new F-16C/Ds. People in Congress want to remind the administration to be tough and not to cave in to China on this issue,” Rigger said.
Asked about Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy, Rigger said that it was like grafting a part from another animal onto your body.
“It might be nice to have a tail, I would love to have a tail. One of those prehensile tails that monkeys have and they can pick things up with it, but I don’t think that it would fit. It would cause me a lot of trouble,” Rigger said. “If China becomes democratic, the true interests of people will be evident. It will be obvious that of all the things that China needs to do, unifying Taiwan by force is not one of them.”
She said that maintaining the status quo was “sustainable for a while longer.”
“The PRC has huge problems — big fish to fry, a lot of things that are not going to get any easier. We are now seeing evidence of economic slowdown,” Rigger said. “There are limits to the resources of the Chinese treasury. I don’t see any reason for the PRC to be impatient about the Taiwan issue in the near to mid-term.”
She said there were hints of political flexibility from Beijing, but only when it was useful for PRC spokespeople and leaders to sound “very reasonable.”
The hints of flexibility, she said, needed to be reflected in international policies and in how the PRC deals with Taiwan in international organizations.
She said there was a tension between PRC leaders saying nice things to people in Taiwan so they would be enticed into feeling safe, while at the same time “beating on Taiwanese people in international forums.”
“Why would we expect Taiwanese people to assume the best when they are caught in this situation?” she asked.