Today’s presidential election is being watched anxiously in Washington, where policymakers are eager to preserve a rare area of calm in relations with China, but face charges of showing favoritism.
The US has been pressing China on a wide range of issues, including myriad economic disputes, Iran, North Korea and human rights. Taiwan, long a source of friction in US-China talks, has been relegated to perfunctory reiterations of policy since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) won the 2008 elections.
“Privately the administration [of US President Barack Obama] would be delighted to see the KMT win the election,” said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for academics.
“But no one wants to say this in a public fashion, either for fear of becoming a factor in the election itself or because people here genuinely believe that we shouldn’t be having a role in this,” he said.
Relations with Washington are crucial for Taipei as the US is required under domestic law to provide Taiwan with means to defend itself.
The Obama administration has declined public comment on the election, but in recent months three senior US officials have visited Taiwan — a significant step as Washington does not recognize the country.
The Obama administration last month also moved toward allowing Taiwanese to visit the US without visas.
The initiatives have been viewed uneasily by the US Congress, where many lawmakers are sympathetic to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) because of its history of promoting democracy in Taiwan.
US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairperson of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, said that while she supported measures that benefit Taiwan, US officials should be careful to show “strict political neutrality.”
“The Taiwanese electorate could interpret these as deliverables provided by the [Obama] administration to Taiwan’s current president just before he faces voters in the polls,” the Republican lawmaker wrote in a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
US Representative Ed Royce, another Republican active on Taiwan, decried that neither Obama nor his Republican predecessor, former US president George W. Bush had shown “high aspirations” for ties with Taiwan.
“Relations with Taiwan are treated as a subset of relations with China, and ‘managed,’ rather than promoted,” he wrote in the Tokyo-based magazine The Diplomat.
“Regardless of who wins Saturday, that approach must change if US-Taiwan relations are to get back on track,” Royce said.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that there was a flip side to charges of US bias — that initiatives on Taiwan have become easier ahead of the election.
China, which usually protests angrily at any hint of official recognition for Taiwan, barely let out a peep over recent US visits to Taiwan and took no major countermeasures over the latest arms package that the US approved in September — a US$5.85 billion upgrade of Taiwan’s fighter jets — which Glaser attributed to Beijing’s desire to support Ma’s re-election.
“I can’t say the complaints [of US bias] are completely unfounded, but people in the [Obama] administration would fairly say that the timing of the campaign has given us an opportunity,” she said.