Listing Taiwan as a candidate for the US’ Visa Waiver Program (VWP) demonstrates the “clear preference” of the administration of US President Barack Obama for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) over Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in the Jan. 14 presidential election, US academic Bonnie Glaser said.
Glaser, a senior fellow in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, posted an online article titled “US Prefers Ma, but Will Work with Tsai” after the American Institute in Taiwan on Thursday announced the long-awaited nomination of Taiwan for inclusion in the VWP.
The announcement, along with other steps taken by the Obama administration, including sending high ranking officials to visit Taiwan in recent months, “calls into question the Obama administration’s claim to being neutral about the election’s outcome,” Glaser said.
“Although US officials studiously avoid saying so directly, there is a clear preference for Ma Ying-jeou to win a second term in office,” she said.
Glaser said that the US worries about a DPP victory partly because of its experience with former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who pursued pro-independence measures that Beijing judged to be provocative, resulting in heightened tensions in both cross-strait and US-China relations.
Even though the DPP and Tsai have learned lessons from that period, “the US still has lingering worries,” she said. “Tsai’s unwillingness to be forthcoming about concrete policies toward the Mainland that she would pursue if elected has exacerbated Washington’s concerns.”
Glaser said that Obama administration officials’ preference for a Ma victory is also a consequence of their desire to avoid introducing additional contentious issues to the increasingly complicated US-China agenda wherein a long list of issues have caused high tensions between the two in recent years.
“Past experience demonstrates that when Chinese fears of Taiwan independence spike, other issues are crowded out in US-Chinese consultations, making compromises and solving problems even more difficult than usual,” Glaser said.
US arms sales to Taiwan in January last year and September infuriated China and soured US-China relations, but the impact was relatively confined and short lived compared with the likely Chinese reaction to the return of the DPP to power, she said.
If Tsai wins, Glaser said US-Taiwan relations are likely to “remain positive and strong” in the absence of policy steps by Taiwan that damage US interest in the maintenance of cross-strait peace and stability, regardless of whether Beijing and Taipei are able to work out a modus vivendi.
The US will do its utmost to encourage the DPP to be pragmatic in its approach to Beijing, while at the same time pressing China to be flexible as well, she said.
“If Chinese leaders assume that the US will reflexively revert to the old playbook that was employed during the [former US president George W.] Bush administration to cope with Chen Shui-bian to manage a new situation, they would be mistaken,” she said.
The US would likely undertake “active diplomacy” to urge Taiwan and China to find a creative way forward that enables the numerous cross-strait communications channels that have been established in recent years to continue to function, she said.
Washington might see advantages in a Ma victory, but it would also look forward and seek to work with Tsai to develop a positive relationship and sustain robust ties, she added.
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