Secretary Clinton: Seeking Balance between Taipei and Beijing

Shih-chung Liu
Shih-chung Liu President - Taiwan Brain Trust

February 17, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently embarked on her first overseas trip, during which she is visiting four Asian countries: Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China. Secretary Clinton’s goals are to highlight the Obama administration’s agenda in the region and to respond to Asian worries that regional needs might be overlooked due to Washington’s preoccupation with the war in Iraq and simmering crises in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Secretary Clinton has emphasized that she intends to deliver messages about American’s desire for more rigorous and persistent commitment and engagement with Asia and to address key issues with Asian leaders such as the global economic crisis, climate change and nuclear proliferation.

On her last stop in China, Clinton is expected to discuss with her Chinese counterparts pressing issues such as climate change, currency policy and human rights. These discussions will demonstrate whether the Obama administration will introduce a new approach to the People’s Republic of China or simply follow the policy of making Beijing as a “responsible stakeholder,” as implemented by the previous administration of George W. Bush.

From Taiwan’s perspective, given the recent temporary stabilization of cross-strait relations since the Ma Ying-jeou government took power, the issue of Taiwan will probably not become a contentious topic between Washington and Beijing, as it was in the past.

Nevertheless, the fact that the current cross-strait détente initiated by Taiwan’s government has not received sufficient good-will response from Beijing—especially when it comes to Taiwan’s international space and China’s reduction of military threats to the island—suggests potential instablity in the near future. A lack of domestic consensus on how to forge a symmetric cross-strait relationship has sparked intensive debate within Taiwan’s democratic society.

The opposition party in Taiwan requests more caution and prudence from President Ma in dealing with China. President Ma also reiterated his bottom-line of respecting the Taiwanese people’s free consent on the country’s future relationship with China.

The U.S. defense community also expressed worry over a potential asymmetric game between Taipei and Beijing in favor of the latter. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said recently that Washington will continue to supply necessary and defensive-oriented arms sales to Taiwan, in line with the Taiwan Relations Act, to balance Beijing’s continuing military build-up.

There is still uncertainty on the extent to which a healthy and peaceful cross-strait relationship could be achieved in the absence of a strong U.S. commitment to and support for Taiwan’s democracy and security.

Therefore, in addition to constructing a multi-dimensional and cooperative partnership with Beijing and encouraging cross-strait dialogue, Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration in Washington should also make more efforts to prevent cross-strait relations from becoming an asymmetric game that might jeopardize the Taiwanese people’s free and democratic choice for any future options.

Shih-chung Liu was counselor and senior counselor to the president of Taiwan (2000-06), and vice chairperson of the research and planning committee in Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2006-08).