Beijing’s economic, military and diplomatic leverage over Taiwan is increasingly forcing Taipei toward unification with China, a speaker told a conference in Washington on Monday.
Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University, said many people in Taiwan favored what they “erroneously see” as a “status quo” in which the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) enjoys independence of action.
However, in reality, he told the conference at George Washington University’s the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Taiwan’s “weak self-strengthening” and a marked decline in US support for its freedom of action further bound it to accommodating China.
Sutter said that US allies and friends in Asia — notably Japan — would require “extraordinary reassurance” that the US government’s encouragement of conditions leading to the resolution of Taiwan’s future and reunification with China does not foreshadow a power-shift in the region.
Next year’s presidential election in Taiwan, which could return the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to power, has the potential to “complicate” the situation, he said.
However, the new leadership of the DPP would likely follow a much more “moderate” approach to cross-strait relations than former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Sutter said.
Under Ma, Taiwan’s freedom of action had eroded in the face of the “remarkable growth” of China’s influence, he said.
“Current US policy focuses, on the one hand, on deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan, while, on the other hand, sustaining conditions for a peaceful resolution of the China-Taiwan impasse,” Sutter said.
His remarks were based on an extensive study he has made of Taiwan’s future to be published soon.
Taipei’s options for dealing with China’s rise were increasingly limited, Sutter said, adding that Taiwanese leaders seeking greater autonomy may hope to delay and draw out the unification process, but government decision-makers in Taiwan, China and the US “seem to be aware” of Taipei’s “eroding position and limited options.”
China, had strengthened its “negative incentives” by continuing the buildup of military forces focused on Taiwan, he said.
In addition, Beijing had made few military concessions, despite Ma’s insistence that China reduce its military pressure.
“An implication drawn by many in China, Taiwan and abroad is that China is endeavoring to reciprocate Ma’s initiatives by following a gradual process of reassurance and engagement in the interest of fostering attitudes on the island opposed to moves toward independence and favorable to closer ties with China,” Sutter said.
While seeking reductions of Chinese forces targeted at Taiwan, the Ma administration remained reluctant to take steps to build up Taiwan’s forces or to work more closely militarily with the US, he said.
The administration of US President Barack Obama finds its interests “best served” by supporting Ma’s strategy of reassurance and engagement with China and avoiding steps to support Taiwan “such as the sale of F-16s” that might upset Beijing.
“The Ma administration came into office pledging to boost defense spending and military preparedness, but implementation has been slow. The administration has failed to meet even such basic goals as sustaining a level of defense spending equivalent to 3 percent of GDP,” Sutter said.
“The United States’ ability to intervene militarily in Taiwan contingencies remains strong, but the reluctance of US leaders to do so is growing,” he said.
Chinese leaders have focused for decades on building leverage and “eventual dominance” over Taiwan with the objective or reunification on terms agreeable to the People’s Republic of China, he said.
Moreover, Obama’s public support for Ma’s cross-strait policies fails to hide the decline in overall US backing for Taiwan “especially for actions that risk complicating US-China relations.”
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