Cross-strait relations have the potential to deteriorate quickly into a situation that might entail “dire consequences,” former director of Asian affairs at the US National Security Council (NSC) Robert Suettinger told a Washington conference on Thursday.
The stability of the US-China-Taiwan relationship relies on implicit understandings and unspoken agreements, he said.
Changes might be misunderstood, and could cause trouble and instability, he added.
Suettinger, a senior adviser at the Stimson Center, was keynote speaker at a Project 2049 Institute conference called The Taiwan Policy Review at 20 Years: Assessing the Future of US Taiwan Policy.
Held at the US House of Representatives’ Rayburn House Office Building, the conference was told by former US assistant secretary of state and former ambassador to China Winston Lord that even though cross-strait relations were now the most stable since 1949, “there could be storm clouds ahead.”
He added that Taiwan was one of the world’s great success stories, but that China saw the nation moving increasingly away from “unification,” while Taiwan saw China conducting the worst crackdown on freedoms since the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Both Suettinger and Lord played central roles in the 1994 Taiwan policy review that set the diplomatic rules for the current US-Taiwan relationship and expressed consensus that incremental changes to the policy since then had worked reasonably well.
“It was, and it remains, a difficult, controversial issue,” Suettinger said.
Lord called the relationship between the US and Taiwan “a Twilight Zone.”
He said Washington wanted to bolster unofficial ties with Taiwan without harming ties with Beijing.
Taiwanese Representative to the US Shen Lyu-shun (沈呂巡) said that improvements were needed in Taiwan’s relationship with the US and that he was working on them on a daily basis.
When asked what he would like to see most, Lord said he wanted the US to “come out strongly” in favor of Taiwan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
“It is very important for Taiwan’s economic and I daresay political future,” he said.
Lord said that Taiwan was not getting a “full-throated welcome” to join the TPP and that the US needed to act more vigorously.
Washington wanted good relations with Beijing, but the US was heading for some “real problems” with China, he said.
Suettinger said that in many ways US policy was an effort to keep relations between Taiwan and China from getting worse and to keep them from “blowing up.” He added that much depended on the internal politics of Beijing and Taipei.
“I am more confident of political stability in Taiwan than I am of political stability [in China],” he said.
Lord said the US should not make any “sea changes” to its Taiwan policy and that if cross-strait relations deteriorated, it would probably be Beijing’s fault.
“The more support we get from the US, the more confident we are engaging ... China,” Shen said.
“Looking back on the last 20 years, we have managed the situation quite well; otherwise we would not be here today,” he added.
Project 2049 Institute president and chief executive Randall Schriver said there had been significant changes since the previous Taiwan policy review in 1994 and he wondered whether these changes had been fully accommodated in the US policy approach.
“There is an argument to be made that we are not keeping pace,” Schriver said. “We should change the quality of our interaction in recognition of Taiwan’s deepening and strengthening democracy,” Schriver said.
He said that not all cross-strait developments were positive, and that the security environment for Taiwan had diminished in many consequential ways. He added that he was not sure the US was meeting Taiwan’s security needs or meeting US obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.
He said that Washington might review its relationship with Taiwan and make some changes, but that a full 1994-style policy review would bring too much attention.
Schriver said that communication between top leaders on both sides needed to be improved and that it would be a “failure” of US policy if President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) before he met with US President Barack Obama.
“I would like us to have the opportunity for a US-Taiwan presidential conversation before China had that conversation,” he said.
Schriver said that the arms sales process was “absolutely broken” and that the two nations were now in the longest stretch in their relationship without the US Congress being informed of new arms sales.
Schriver said that it had been “three years and counting” since the last arms sales notification.
“Legitimate security requirements are not being met,” he said.
He said there was a “de facto freeze” on arms sales and that “something had to be done to fix it.”
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