US attention to Taiwan is “weak” and is likely to remain that way even if Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is elected president next month, a leading academic in Washington said this week.
US President Barack Obama and his administration will not change course as a result of the elections, but will continue “steady as they go” said Robert Sutter, the Professor of Practice of International Affairs at The George Washington University and an expert on US policy toward Asia and the Pacific, Taiwan and Chinese foreign relations.
He told a university conference, titled “Voting for Change? The Impact of Taiwan’s Upcoming Elections,” on Tuesday that the White House would avoid issues with Taiwan that might worsen current “fraying” relations with China.
Sutter said that US-China relations “zig and zag” and that it was unlikely that Washington would change its Taiwan policies following Tsai’s expected victory.
Disputes with Beijing were clearly secondary to other foreign policy issues, including the Islamic State group and Russia, he said.
There was a fear in Washington that if the Taiwan issue was raised it might divert attention from other issues that Obama considers to be very important such as climate change and cooperation in the fight against terrorism, he said.
The US’ attention toward Taiwan was weak and not “a big element of debate,” Sutter said.
However, the situation is not static and that the next US president might bring in political officers who could institute change, he said, adding that there was no denying that the momentum in the present government continued to be “very cautious.”
A lot would depend on Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and if he kept “pushing the envelope,” Sutter said.
It was possible that Xi’s actions might make Obama “very angry” and that could change the equation, he said.
Nevertheless, current conditions seemed insufficient to change existing patterns of cautious US policy toward Taiwan because Obama wanted to avoid controversy and conflict with China over this issue, he said, adding: “Tsai’s election probably won’t change this pattern.”
“We need to watch for variables including the preferences of a new US government, greater US friction with China and great collaborative opportunities with a Taiwan government under Tsai Ing-wen,” he said.
China’s military buildup opposite Taiwan has to be regarded as coercion, with Beijing using big sticks, which are enormously powerful, to threaten the island, he said.
“The US government says that it is prepared to defend Taiwan and I believe they will, but they don’t make an issue out of this,” Sutter said.
He said that Chinese strategists might think that if Beijing could get away with threatening Taiwan they would do the same with Japan and the US would not intervene.
“I find it remarkable that we are very upset about the bullying that has been going on in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea when this massive intimidation has been going on in cross-strait relations for the last 15 years and we don’t change our benign approach,” he said.
Yun Sun, a senior associate in the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, told the conference that following Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) losses in last year’s nine-in-one elections many in China had expressed “profound frustration” with President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) performance.
She said it led Chinese analysts to question Ma’s political wisdom and his staff and their failure to consolidate domestic support.
Yun said there was a clear understanding in China that most Taiwanese were not in favor of unification or the “one China” principle. Any achievement or setback in cross-strait relations would have an important impact over Xi’s domestic political prestige, over his great leader image and even over his foreign policy credentials, she said.
“If the DPP does win next month, how Xi handles a future DPP government and the development of cross-strait relations in the next four years will be highly relevant in the assessment of his administration and of himself as a Chinese leader,” Yun said.
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