President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) startled many by making his closest adviser the nation’s envoy to the US on a mission to prove that Taiwan is still a key ally.
King Pu-Tsung (金溥聰) is considered the power behind the throne as the president’s election strategist and former head of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), but he has never been a diplomat, and the appointment surprised the US and China.
In an interview, King highlighted the importance of the “strategic ambiguity” that Taiwan maintains with China on one side, and the US on the other.
That ambiguity does not help counter US observers who say Taiwan has become a “strategic liability” because of the harm that US arms sales to Taiwan do to relations with China.
“We have our own pragmatic approach to survive,” King said.
“We need strong support from the United States, but we also have to deal cautiously with mainland [sic] China because now they are the No. 1 partner of Taiwan,” he added. “It is a very strategic ambiguity that we have. It is the best shield we have.”
King said Taiwan-US relations were “damaged” under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and his job is to lead “low profile,” “pragmatic” attempts to lift Washington’s confidence.
His links to Ma are important.
“What I say can probably represent what he is thinking in the future,” King said.
Ma wants advanced US weaponry.
“We still need to have a very strong defense capability to protect Taiwan,” said King, who has his eyes on US-made F-22 or F-35 jets and submarines.
Such a sale would infuriate Beijing.
“Even if it is just a symbolic gesture, it is very important to us. It shows strong US support to Taiwan,” King said.
Talks on a Trade and Investment Agreement, which could lead to a full free-trade deal, are to resume next month. Taiwan lifted a six-year-old ban on imports of some US beef products to tempt the US administration back into talks.
Weapons and trade are all part of what King calls the “paradoxical” relations between the US and Taiwan.
US-Taiwan relations are “the best they have been in the past 30 years,” said King, who took up his post in December.
However the US encourages Taiwan to have good relations with China.
“But like a lot of people in the think tanks, they are worrying that probably Taiwan is leaning toward mainland [sic] China too much,” King said.
King said the message he gets is: “’You have cordial relations, beneficial relations with mainland [sic] China, but don’t go too far.’”
According to former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush, who is now director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, some US “observers believe that Taiwan has become a strategic liability” so the US should stop arming Taiwan.
The doubters include Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former US president Jimmy Carter, and retired Admiral Bill Owens,who was a vice chairman of the US chiefs of staff.
“They echo Chinese diplomats who argue that our arms sales are the major obstacle to good US-China relations,” Bush said in a policy paper for Brookings released last month.
However, Bush said improvements in Taiwan-China relationship would probably only be “modest” and could stall.
George Tsai (蔡瑋), political science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said King’s close links to Ma made him the perfect candidate to help disperse US concerns.
“Washington has sent messages to Taipei that it wants to the keep the ‘status quo’ across the Taiwan Strait,” Tsai said.
“Washington has revealed its concerns on some issues like the proposed culture agreements and confidence-building measures, which it believes does not serve US interests,” Tsai said.
King said a US rethink was “wishful thinking” and there was nothing ambiguous in Ma’s comment that he would “rather die” than give up Taiwan’s sovereignty.