The biggest failure of US President Barack Obama administration’s policy toward China was “ignoring and underestimating Taiwan,” former American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) director William Stanton told a Taipei symposium yesterday.
“The US policy toward China has been pretty consistent since 1972, but it does not mean our policies have been correct or successful,” said Stanton, who is now director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University.
“In my view, US policy is often proved wrong with regard to China, and by ‘wrong’ I mean they failed to promote US interests or to achieve US goals,” he said.
In his speech, titled “US policy toward Xi Jinping’s [習近平] China,” Stanton said that the Cold War geostrategic argument that the US should cooperate with China to counterbalance a possible Sino-Soviet alliance was “proved wrong” by the continuing strengthening of Sino-Russian partnership on both military and diplomatic fronts.
“In the absence of shared values, geostrategic partnerships are inherently unstable,” Stanton said.
“You can have a geostrategic relationship between the US and the United Kingdom, maybe, which are two democracies. But do not depend on it if [the potential partner is] a communist autocracy and [you are] a democracy,” he added.
Another argument that calls for cooperation with China in order to resolve regional and global problems “has been largely illusory when you search for concrete positive outcomes from a US perspective” due to China’s size, power and status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Stanton said.
The economic argument, which expects increased trade with China and states that continuing improvement in the Chinese economy would facilitate political change, has started to be called into question, he said.
The assumption that the US economy has benefited from trade with China has also been rebuffed by studies, he added.
“Another US policy error from the start was ignoring Taiwan’s interests and underestimating its potential,” he said.
“If Washington policymakers in 1972 had foreseen [Taiwan’s evolution into a vibrant democracy and robust economy], perhaps they would not have written off Taiwan so easily, just as no one would have ever thought of abandoning Australia,” he said.
“A lack of knowledge about and understanding of Taiwan continues. Some of our key policymakers on China under the Obama administration have never even visited Taiwan, or visited it rarely, meeting with junior officials and academics,” Stanton said.
This partly explains why “some Washington observers were taken aback by the Sunflower movement [in the spring of last year] and reacted angrily,” he said.
“In my view, the biggest failure of the Obama administration’s policy toward China has been its handling of Taiwan. An example was the omission of any references to Taiwan in describing the US policy of a reorientation to Asia,” Stanton said.
He said Washington gave a “far more hospitable and objective reception of [Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson] Tsai Ing-wen [蔡英文] this year [than in 2011], and it was an “important positive step by Washington in support of an even-handed approach to, and support for, Taiwan’s democracy.”
Other key areas where the US needs to support Taiwan are “defense cooperation and trade,” Stanton said.