Taiwan’s Elections and United States Interests

On Friday, September 12, Brooking’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies convened a conference on China-Taiwan relations, in cooperation with Taiwan’s Association of Foreign Relations. The presentations were stimulating and the audience participation was good (a transcript of the event should be posted soon).

As it happened, I received a lot of coverage in the Taiwan media for some remarks I made at the end of my presentation, concerning how the United States government would approach the 2016 Taiwan presidential election. I suppose I should be flattered by all the attention my remarks evoked. I did appreciate the mature and measured response from Dr. Joseph Wu, secretary-general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). I have absolutely no objection to the quite accurate comment of the spokesman of the American Institute in Taiwan that I am no longer a government official and was speaking for myself. I was not surprised that some reporters didn’t get their facts exactly right; that’s not unheard of in either the Taiwan or the American media. But what I’ve seen from the Taipei Times is truly puzzling.

Before I address why I’m puzzled, here is what I said:

What I am prepared to say with some confidence [about the 2016 Taiwan election] is that the U.S. government, at some time and in some way, will express itself on the implications of the 2016 election for U.S. interests. Now, I recognize, because I lived this at one time, that Washington is caught in a bit of a dilemma here. On the one hand, we have a general principle that it’s the voters of friendly democratic countries who should be the ones to pick their leaders at the ballot box, and that the United States should not try influence their votes by expressing a preference for one candidate or the other. On the other hand, the United States does have interests in the policies of any elected leadership, whether it’s Taiwan or a lot of other places.

So, in spite of this dilemma Washington has not been quiet. And let me just let me give you a few examples. 1996: the Clinton Administration, through its actions, made a statement of sorts. In December 1999, I myself made a public statement in Taiwan where I sort of laid out both sides of our view about Taiwan’s democratic election. Almost exactly four years later, another person named Bush made his statement and that was clearly critical of Chen Shui-bian’s policies. In September 2007, actually seven years ago yesterday, my friend Tom Christensen made a long and detailed critique of the Chen Administration’s policies and the DPP’s strategy for the 2008 election. Almost exactly four years later, September 2011, the Obama Administration conveyed its views through the Financial Times. So this is something we do. We feel there is a need for us to express our views on how our interests will be affected by Taiwan’s elections. And to say nothing, as some in Taiwan might want us to do, is actually to make a statement as well.

One story, filed from Washington, reported that I said that “the U.S. was likely to try to ‘influence’ Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections. While he did not speculate about what might happen, Bush indicated that Washington would declare a preference for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate because there were lingering doubts about the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) cross-strait policies.” Another story claimed I said that Washington might “try to sway vote in the 2016 presidential election.”

As can be seen from the text of my remarks, the U.S. government clearly understands the tension between not stating support for a particular candidate and expressing itself on the U.S. interests at stake, when there are interests at stake (I have felt that tension myself). I provided the examples where we have expressed views in the past on the implications of the election for U.S. interests, by way of predicting that it would happen again. It was up to Taiwan voters in the past to decide what those statements meant and how to weight them in their voting decisions. It will be up to Taiwan voters to do so in the future, which is as it should be. But I don’t see any basis for extrapolating from my actual remarks to conclude that I was predicting that the U.S. government would side with one party over another.