A panel of top US experts on Taiwan has praised President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) cross-strait policies, but warned that contingency plans were needed in case China should suddenly turn aggressive.
“Ma and Taiwan may not be ready for political talks, but the other side is sure interested in moving in that direction,” former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia Randall Schriver said.
He said that in relations with China, Ma’s plan was to deal with easy issues first and “the hard stuff” later.
However, there was a growing lobby in China that argued Beijing had given Ma a lot and that it was now time for him to reciprocate.
“As we get closer to the end of Ma’s term, particularly if the polls remain where they are at, you can see a great deal of pressure coming from Beijing to move in the direction of political talks, not just to institutionalize what has been accomplished,” Schriver said.
China will want to go further and “lock something in” before Ma leaves office, he said.
The panel was meeting at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday to assess the videoconference given earlier in the week by Ma and which was hosted by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at Stanford University.
Schriver stressed that Ma did not talk about China’s military buildup during his videoconference.
“Despite all the progress, the agreements and the improved political environment, the military buildup has continued and not retreated in the slightest,” Schriver said.
“You can see the potential for an unhealthy dynamic,” he added.
Schriver said that Ma had broken with a pattern set in other videoconferences to the US and had not mentioned the sale of any specific weapons systems.
“I think Taiwan would benefit from some of the major systems, like F-16C/Ds or submarines,” he said.
“If you look at how long Taiwan could hold out should there be conflict, that period of time is moving in the wrong direction and we need to arrest that and deal with it,” Schriver added.
Professor of international affairs at George Washington University Robert Sutter said that Taiwan depended on China holding to a steady course in cross-strait relations.
However, Chinese actions in foreign affairs were constantly changing and shifting, he added.
“I am nervous about this,” Sutter said
Sutter added that China was showing a new pattern of assertiveness along its eastern rim, as witnessed on the Korean Peninsula as well as Vietnam, the East China Sea and the South China Sea, the Philippines and Japan.
“China is using coercion and it is using intimidation and it is often extralegal,” Sutter said. “It is not something that is in line with international norms. Taiwan should keep this in its calculations because we will see more of it.”
“The leaders of China have a sense that they have been taken advantage of by the leaders of these countries along the periphery. They don’t want it to continue,” he added. “Ma should get ready for a China that is determined to be a bit more tough on key issues.”
“We are dealing with a rising China that is more assertive in a whole range of sensitive areas. I don’t want to be a nay-sayer, but this is something that needs to be dealt with,” Sutter said. “I would be careful, folks, this is something that is around the corner.”
Sutter said it was a situation that the US and President Ma needed “contingency plans” for to deal with.
Director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution Richard Bush said that the current momentum in cross-strait relations would slow, and that progress on political and security talks was unlikely in Ma’s second term.
He said that in private, Chinese officials agreed that they needed to be patient.
However, he said, others within China wanted results and it was possible that China would give up on a gradualist approach.
“It really is a worrisome situation that Taiwan and the US needs to be concerned about,” he said.
Another former director of the AIT and panel moderator Douglas Paal stressed that US deterrence had to be maintained and that Washington should try to “shape the character of China’s future thoughts about unification.”