A leading US academic is predicting that as Taiwan moves closer to China under the policies of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Taipei’s “freedom of action” will erode.
Robert Sutter of George Washington University told a conference titled “The Future of US-Taiwan Relations” that there is a dark underside to the very positive sentiments that are expressed toward Taiwan by Washington.
“There is a lot of good feeling for Taiwan in Washington, but underneath this positive dynamic, Taiwan’s freedom of action is eroding,” he said.
“It cannot reverse its path. That’s the basic conclusion that I have come to,” he said.
Sutter said that the current trends in cross-strait relations were likely to continue and that a “break” was unlikely because the trends were perceived to be in the best interests of Taiwan, the US and China.
He told the conference, organized by the Washington-based Center for National Policy, that the Ma administration had provided decision-makers in all three countries with “a great sense of relief” from the anxiety and danger that emanated from former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) “less China-friendly” policies.
At the same time, however, China’s strategic influence over Taiwan had become “enormous” and Taiwan had become “intimidated.” Also, Taiwan had become economically dependent on China and needed China’s permission to expand its international space, he said.
In a printed analysis handed out during the conference, Sutter said: “Close examination shows that public support given by the [US President] Barack Obama government for Ma’s cross-strait policies fails to hide the reduced overall US backing for Taiwan, especially for actions that risk complicating US-China relations for the sake of shoring up support for Taiwan.”
Even if the Democratic Progressive Party won the presidential election in January, Sutter said the party was moving toward the center and while the Taiwan-China relationship might stall for a while, there would be no fundamental break.
“Chinese leverage over Taiwan is growing every day,” he said.
The US wanted to deter China from attacking Taiwan, but at the same time it also wanted to keep the process moving toward an eventual settlement.
The US Congress, he said, would “posture in a certain way” on Taiwan’s behalf, but if things became dangerous they would pull back. Washington, he said, still had a strong determination to help Taiwan, but there was a reluctance to act.
“This administration is re--engaging with Asia big time, but where is Taiwan? It’s not mentioned. It’s not part of it. It’s not there,” he said. “The administration is full of good people. They like Taiwan [and] if China attacks Taiwan, they will be there.”
However, he said that if Taiwan moved in a direction that was not “keeping the engagement going with China,” US support would be thin.
“This pattern of growing ties between China and Taiwan is fully supported by the United States,” he said.
And he stressed that the pattern inevitably narrowed Taiwan’s freedom of action.
“They are just not going to be able to do a lot of the things they used to do and frankly, a lot of this is because they don’t want to. They don’t want to spend money on defense. They don’t want to lose out on the economic advantages of dealing with China,” he said.
“When we reach a point where Taiwan moves in a direction with China that surprises people, when it moves ahead, there might be some people who will point fingers and ask who lost Taiwan. We are all complicit in this. Unless we are out there strongly protesting what is going on — and I don’t see anybody doing that — we are all participants,” Sutter added.