Taiwan may be on a “slippery slope” in its dealings with China, former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush wrote recently in a policy paper.
Even if Taipei does not make a “proactive strategic decision” to appease Beijing and Washington does not seek to curry favor with China by sacrificing Taiwan’s interests, “there remains the possibility that Taiwan might undermine itself through inattention or neglect,” he said.
In a policy briefing published by the non-profit Brookings Institution in Washington this week, Bush wrote that Taiwan might become complacent and assume that Beijing’s intentions are so benign that it is prepared to accept some version of the “status quo” in the long term.
“Yet China has a different objective — ending Taiwan’s de facto independence more or less on its terms — and it may not have infinite patience,” he said.
The danger is that a frustrated China might seek to exploit the power asymmetry between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and intimidate Taiwan into accepting “an offer it can’t refuse,” he said.
The first thing Taiwan must do to avoid that situation is to “not create the impression in Beijing that the door on unification is closing forever — which Taiwan is currently doing,” Bush added.
There are four other things Bush said the nation can do “at the margin” to strengthen itself against Chinese pressure.
Economically, it should sustain competitiveness by shifting to a knowledge-based economy and liberalizing economic ties with all major trading partners, not just China.
Taiwan should also reform its political system so that it can better address the real challenges it faces, instead of focusing on relatively superficial issues.
It should also foster a clearer sense of what it means to say that Taiwan is a sovereign entity, not just in its role in the international system, but also regarding cross-strait relations.
Militarily, Taiwan should enhance the deterrent capabilities of its armed forces in ways that raise the costs and uncertainties for Beijing if it were ever to mount an intimidation campaign.
“None of these forms of self-strengthening will be easy, but they will buoy Taiwan’s psychological confidence and reduce the chances of the PRC [People’s Republic of China applying] pressure in the first place,” he said.
For its part, the US should help Taiwan where it can.
“The most obvious ways are economically, by drawing Taiwan into the circle of high-quality liberalization, and militarily, by supporting innovative and cost-effective ways to enhance deterrence,” the briefing said.
In his report, Bush said that the primary reason China has failed to engage Taiwan on its terms is not US arms sales, but “because its negotiating position is unacceptable to the Taiwan public.”
Bush concluded that: “As China rises and seeks to reshape East Asia more to its liking, how the United States responds will be a critical variable. It needs the right mix of accommodation and firmness. Giving way on Taiwan will neither pacify Beijing nor assure our allies.”
As reported by the Taipei Times last week, Bush, who is the director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, recently published a book titled Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations.