U.S.-Taiwan Relations: What’s the Problem?

Today I wish to speak about why U.S.-Taiwan relations have sunk to such a low point. Personally, this deterioration is a sad outcome for me since I have spent much of my professional career trying to promote the opposite: the best possible relations between our two countries. That was a specific ambition of mine during the five years that I served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. For example, during my first visit as AIT chairman in 1997 I took the initiative to invite then-Mayor Chen Shui-bian to come to Washington D.C. because I believed that if there was an even modest chance that Mr. Chen might become Taiwan’s president it was in America’s interest to broaden and deepen communication with him and his camp. Both the Clinton and Bush Administrations worked hard, I believe, to have good relations with the Chen Administration, and they succeeded for a time. So the turn for the worse is a matter of personal regret.

But Richard Bush’s personal feelings are less important than the analytic puzzle that the current situation presents. The United States and Taiwan share economic interests, political values, and the challenge posed by China’s military modernization. True, the history of the last sixty years has not been problem-free, but objectively there is far more that unites our two countries and joins our two peoples than divides us. So why the apparent clash of interests? Why, for example, did the Bush Administration start as the most Taiwan-friendly administration since the termination of diplomatic relations (or since World War II) and end up as probably the most hostile?

We can examine a series of possible explanations and whether they ring true. Based on those explanations that are most compelling, we can then assess what will be needed to put U.S.-Taiwan relations on a sounder basis. In the process of discussing those explanations, I will come back to the one implied in the title of this session, that something about Taiwan’s political development causes tensions in U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Insufficient Communications Channels

The first possible explanation is that the communications channels that exist between our two governments do not permit a quality exchange of messages between our leaders. Specifically, the rules that the United States has adopted unilaterally for the conduct of its unofficial relationship with the island prevent top officials in Washington – the president, national security adviser, secretary of state, secretary of defense – from having direct, meaningful interaction with their Taiwan counterparts. How, one might ask, can the United States truly understand the perspectives and intentions of Taiwan leaders unless they have an opportunity to talk with senior Washington officials face to face?

There is no question that when two leaders get along well – when they “click” – it makes a huge difference in their countries’ relations. Look at Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin or George W. Bush and Koizumi Junichiro or Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai. But the opposite is also true: when personal ties between leaders are bad, it exacerbates the bilateral relationship.

In the case of Taiwan, a die was cast in 1978. The Carter Administration set the parameters for U.S.-Taiwan government-to-government interaction as it normalized relations with the PRC and those parameters were limited. We accepted an unofficial relationship and defined it in a certain way. There was a revision in 1994 and greater flexibility introduced after 2001. But it is still an unofficial relationship. To make their Taiwan counterparts feel better, American officials sometimes emphasize how important the substance of our relations are, but Taiwan officials, coming as they do from the Chinese cultural world, believe that form is substance.

All that is true. What is also true is that Washington has taken special steps, within the context of the unofficial relationship, to create opportunities for “high quality” interaction. The Clinton Administration instituted a channel where Taiwan’s secretary-general of the national security council met periodically with the U.S. deputy national security adviser. I participated in a number of those meetings. I believe they were very useful. There are reports that during the Bush Administration the senior director for Asia on our national security council staff – the U.S. president’s personal adviser on China and Taiwan issues – made visits to Taiwan and met with President Chen Shui-bian. Those kinds of interactions are not the same as a meeting of presidents, to be sure, or the U.S. secretary of state and Taiwan’s foreign minister. But within the context of an unofficial relationship, they are high-value encounters if – and this is a very important if – there is a convergence of interests and strategy between our two governments. If interests and strategy do not converge, then it usually doesn’t matter at what level the meetings occur.

U.S. Interests and Taiwan Democracy in Fundamental Conflict

The second explanation sometimes raised is that there is a fundamental contradiction between Taiwan’s democracy and American foreign policy interests. By the way, this explanation is at odds with substance of one of the few personal initiatives I made during my career as chairman of AIT. That occurred toward the end of the Clinton Administration when I got approval to introduce into the set of statements that composed U.S. Taiwan policy the idea that for the United States, the Taiwan Strait issue should be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan. The premise of that formulation was that there was no fundamental contradiction between Taiwan’s democracy and U.S. interests.

To explore the opposite hypothesis – that there is a fundamental contradiction, I cite as a text an advertisement that my friend Mr. Koo Kwan-min placed in The Washington Post and The New York Times on September 17th. Mr. Koo objected to several elements in U.S. policy towards Taiwan. He noted that:

  • Washington opposed the effort, through a referendum, to allow the Taiwan people to express their desire to enter the United Nations and to confirm the island’s status as a sovereign state.
  • A Bush Administration official had said that Taiwan was not a state.
  • The Bush Administration was taking Beijing’s side in this dispute and appeasing China in its pressure on Taiwan.
  • Washington was unjustly opposed to Taiwan’s adopting a new constitution, new national name, and new national anthem, all as Taiwan’s means to stand up to Chinese pressure and, I infer, all as expressions of a Taiwan identity.
  • The Bush Administration has failed to understand the emergence of that Taiwan identity over the last two decades and the policy implications that flow from it.

The theme that runs through Mr. Koo’s polemic is that, although Taiwan has been acting in the finest spirit of America’s democratic history and values, the United States government has contributed to Taiwan’s international orphanhood and has been complicit in its suppression by China. That is, the imperatives of American foreign policy are at odds with the aspirations of the long suffering people of Taiwan.

Although not all of what Mr. Koo says is factually correct, I respect his point of view. It is a serious perspective and deserves to be taken seriously by American friends of Taiwan, even if they do not agree with it. This viewpoint is based on certain premises: that the motivations of Taiwan actions are based on certain moral and legal principles, that China’s actions have an immoral and illegitimate basis both in general and specifically as regards Taiwan, and so Taiwan need not take China’s interests into account when deciding its course (and neither should the United States). For some who hold this viewpoint, there is in the background a historical memory of repression, U.S external control, and general victimization.

This viewpoint does raise a couple of questions. First of all, one must ask if the aggressive assertion of an exclusive Taiwan identity and the policies that seem to flow from it are the most salient issue for Taiwan’s democracy. Or does it represent the advocacy of an articulate and active minority within Taiwan’s democratic system? I know that polls say that a large majority supports UN membership but I wonder how important that issue is in comparison with other policy issues. The polls don’t measure intensity. They also don’t ask what people feel about the UN membership issue if we hypothesize that negative consequences would occur from pursuing it at all costs.

A second question. Taiwan people who conclude that U.S. foreign policy interests are incompatible with Taiwan democracy have to explain a mystery. The mystery is: how was it that the administration of George W. Bush—which, I can tell you, came into office with definite plans for improving U.S. relations with Taiwan far beyond where Bill Clinton left them—has turned out to be more unfriendly than Clinton? Something happened. You cannot blame communist brain-washing of the State Department, an explanation I have heard. You cannot put it all on the U.S. dependence on China for help on counter-terrorism, North Korea, and Iran. China has been helpful, but not that helpful.

Taiwan Leaders Put U.S. and Taiwan Security at Risk for Political Gain

Let me turn to the current explanation of the United States government, and for my text I draw on the September speech of my friend, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Christensen. I know this was a very difficult speech for Taiwan people to read, because it was so frank and critical. But I think that U.S. officials believed that they had no choice but to provide a clear, explicit, and detailed explanation of American opposition to the UN referendum. Let me summarize the key points of the Dr. Christensen’s argument, but not in the order that he made them.

  • DPP leaders undertook the UN referendum, including the name Taiwan, because they believed it would help them in the 2008 election.
  • In light of past pledges, the inclusion of the symbolically charged name element in the referendum created the impression that DPP leaders were taking a step to change the status quo (a change which the United States opposed).
  • That action ignored Chinese redlines and reactions and so constituted needless provocative behavior (it might lead to a PRC military reaction). The referendum initiative in turn put at risk the security of people of Taiwan, in which the United States had an interest, and the security of the United States.
  • The U.S. government sought privately to dissuade DPP leaders from pursuing this course of action, but to no avail. It therefore had no choice, in its own interests and for the interests of the security of the people of Taiwan, to voice its concern. “Friends have an obligation to warn friends who are moving in an unwise direction.”

To be clear, in the U.S. government view, the UN referendum was not a mechanism to give voice the aspirations of all the people of Taiwan; it was a means to advance the political fortunes of the DPP.

Dr. Christensen’s viewpoint is shared, I believe, by many mainstream foreign-policy thinkers in the United States. But it does raise some questions. Dr. Christensen is careful to say that the name element of the referendum “appears . . . to be intended as a step to change the status quo.” Well, is it or is it not? It makes a difference. He suggests that the referendum “could be interpreted by many to be legally binding.” Well, is it or isn’t it? It makes a difference. He is not explicit as he might be. Likely, what is behind the vagueness is not only that there can be differing interpretations of these points, but that considerable uncertainty—and mistrust—has been created by the salami slicing of the last few years. That growing uncertainty and mistrust has made it difficult for American officials to accept Taiwan assurances about their benign intentions at face value. On the other side of the coin, Washington is also concerned not to leave any impression that the referendum is a justification for the use of force against Taiwan.

There are some Americans, I might note by the way, who see no ambiguity in the current situation. They have concluded that the objective of Taiwan’s leaders is to separate the island from the state called China and that this objective is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. interest of preserving peace and security in this area, because it would unnecessarily provoke a forceful PRC response. The United States, therefore, should oppose Taipei’s course at all costs. They believe that the democratic rationale is just a smokescreen.

Coming back to Dr. Christensen’s speech, I would go beyond what he said about political symbolism. I actually think the name issue is more than a symbol. It was part of an assurance that represented something important about President Chen’s intentions towards China. That assurance was important to Beijing and Washington. But names are both a tool of assurance and a significant political resource within Taiwan domestic politics. So when names become a domestic political issue, it creates a trade-off between the cross-Strait and domestic dimensions.

Finally, I think it is unfortunate for Washington to repeat that it does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state. That is statement is true when it comes to the U.S. view about the international system. But to repeat it too often undercuts Taipei’s important claim of sovereignty at the level of cross-Strait relations.

Dr. Christensen’s key point, therefore, is that, in the American view, the tensions in our bilateral relations were the result of tactics that the DPP undertook to improve its political position but that had the effect, in part because of the way the DPP interpreted the implications of the referendum, of needlessly provoking Beijing and endangering Taiwan and American security. Our response was consistent with our long-standing approach of dual deterrence, where we warn Beijing not to use force against Taiwan and we warn Taipei not to take political actions that might provoke China to use force (even as we reassure it that we are not going to sell out its interests). From this point of view, our foreign policy interests are in no way inconsistent with Taiwan’s democracy, as Mr. Koo Kwan-min asserts. The key issue for Dr. Christensen is whether Taiwan’s leaders conduct external policy and domestic politics with external implications in what Dr. Christensen calls a “moderate” way.

A Tension Between Democracy and Security

Now you may think I have picked somewhat extreme positions to represent Taiwan and American explanations of our current difficulties. Not all Taiwan people would associate themselves with the views of Mr. Koo Kwan-min, and not all Americans would state the U.S. government’s concerns about the current situation the way Dr. Christensen has.

A lot of Taiwan people might assert that the Taiwan initiatives to which the Bush Administration objects are just a reaction to the PRC’s squeezing Taiwan in the international community and that Taiwan needs to hold the UN referendum in order to show the international community that it is not under the PRC. It is certainly true that Beijing’s diplomats have been constraining Taiwan’s international space in a manner that is at odds with its proclaimed goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people, and Americans would certainly agree that Beijing’s diplomatic activities and military build-up are heavy-handed and counterproductive. But some Americans would also suggest that although this squeezing activity began in the 1990s, it intensified significantly after 2002 when Beijing became more alarmed about the Chen Administration’s intentions and its capacity to achieve them. And they might suggest that if the DPP’s goal with the referendum were to make a statement to the international community, then there should be one referendum that reflected an inter-party consensus on all issues rather than two referenda that exposed a major inter-party difference on two key issues.

Taiwan people might say that the initiatives that sour Beijing and bother Washington are expressions of Taiwan identity and cannot―perhaps even should not―be stopped. We are told that over two-thirds of those polled say they are Taiwanese, and that certain policies must flow from that reality. On the other hand, I am aware that there is a debate over how ethnic consciousness is measured, and that a legitimate case can be made for a methodology that indicates that the share of people with an exclusively Taiwan identity is no more than the share that has a mixed – Taiwan-Chinese – identity. If that is the case, the policy implications are not so clear. Moreover, although identity can shape policy, arguably it is not the only factor shaping policy.

Taiwan people might say that the institutions of indirect, representative democracy distort the will of the people and that on Taiwan, those institutions are also fairly gridlocked. Therefore, the institutions of direct democracy, like a referendum, are a better way to reflect the public will. I agree that the institutions of indirect democracy can distort the will of the people and that Taiwan’s democratic institutions need badly to be improved and consolidated. I would also note that the experience in the United States with direct democracy, particularly with referenda, shows that special interests can use them to distort the will of the people as well.

So where do I come out on the current state of U.S.-Taiwan relations? I have felt for a long time that there is an element missing in the discussion of U.S.-Taiwan relations. Although our two countries are both democracies, we are also security partners. The United States has provided a significant commitment to Taiwan’s defense, to the point that it appears that China believes that Washington would intervene in any conflict. Taiwan is dependent on the United States for access to advanced weapons systems. Interaction between the American and Taiwan armed forces has expanded significantly in the last several years, and Taiwan will be more secure as a result. The United States does all this for four reasons: the political commitment in the Taiwan Relations Act; the support and sympathy that Taiwan enjoys in the United States; our stake in preserving peace and stability in the Western Pacific; and the need to protect American credibility in East Asia and the world. It is more than fair to say that Taiwan would not enjoy in the relatively positive position it has today without the support of the United States, which we have provided at some political cost.

Now an alliance is a special form of security partnership, and scholars of international relations tell us that the parties to any alliance will have a couple of fears. By analogy, these same fears will exist in a security partnership that does not take treaty or even official form, such as that between the United States and Taiwan. The first fear is that one of the parties will abandon the other. That is, Party A will renege on its explicit or implicit security commitment to Party B, and sometimes do so in order to secure benefits from Party C, against which the alliance was directed in the first place.

The second fear that occurs among allies is that of entrapment. That is, Party B fears that Party A will draw it into a conflict that Party B does not believe is in its interests. This is fear is known as the problem of the tail wagging the dog. This should be familiar to people who study U.S.-Taiwan relations. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s Washington worried that Chiang Kai-shek was trying to create situations that would give America no choice but to aid him in his mission of fangong dalu.

I should make clear that these fears of abandonment or entrapment often do not have any basis in fact. But they are stimulated in situations where one side lacks sufficient information or trust in the other to allay these fears. Sometimes, on the other hand, the fears are real. Whatever the case, a lot of time is spent in the management of security partnerships on mutual reassurance. That is because fears of abandonment and entrapment are very corrosive. They can undermine the shared interest on which the security partnership is based.

A couple of other points. Managing these fears is harder when the adversary against which the security partnership is directed is a rising power. That inevitably raises differences between the partners about whether it is appropriate to accommodate the adversary tactically in order to cope with it strategically. How to cope with Hitler before 1939 is a case in point.

Second, limiting fears of abandonment and entrapment is more difficult when the adversary presents both opportunities and dangers. If the adversary presents only dangers, life among security partners is easier. But if, as China does today, the adversary offers substantial economic opportunities to both Taiwan and the United States as well as posing some real or potential threats to the security of each, then it is harder to manage our relations. One party is likely to emphasize opportunities over dangers and vice versa. Complicating matters here is the fact that China contributes to some of America’s foreign policy objectives but only obstructs Taiwan’s core foreign policy goal – to expand its international participation.

Finally, management of a security partnership becomes more complicated when the two partners are democracies. How the two should meet the challenges and opportunities posed by the potential adversary must be negotiated not just between the two governments but between governments and publics. Leaders contending for power domestically may raise issues that bear on the substance of the security partnership.

The security partnership between the United States and Taiwan has all of these complicating factors. The potential adversary is a China that not only makes an essential contribution to the economic well-being of both Taiwan and America but also shares some significant foreign policy interests with the United States. It is also a rising power, with all the problems of transition management that entails. And the United States and Taiwan are democracies. In 2000, George W. Bush sought to a degree to politicize U.S. Taiwan policy. The DPP sought to politicize identity and cross-Strait relations in 2002-2004 and is doing so again in 2007, with implications for its relations with the United States. In both cases, the expectations of the other party changed, and not for the better. It is not surprising, therefore, that the U.S.-Taiwan security partnership should contain fears of abandonment and entrapment. We should be surprised if it did not.

To put it differently, the fact that both the United States and Taiwan are democracies can cut across and be in serious tension with the reality of their security partnership. What happens within their respective political systems can affect the mutual expectations and obligations of their security relationship. This was, I think, the dynamic at play that led to President Bush’s remarks of December 2003, to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly’s testimony in April of 2004, to Secretary Powell’s statement in Beijing in October 2004, and to the statements of various U.S. officials this fall.

When, on the other hand, democracy and a defense partnership are mutually reinforcing, security is promoted. Although Taiwan’s concern about abandonment is understandable, since it is a structural feature of any security partnership, I do not believe that U.S. policy in any way undermines Taiwan’s fundamental interests. That is true of the “one China” policy, our economic engagement with the PRC, and our preference to cooperate on foreign policy issues like North Korea. I do not believe that the best things that Taiwan could do to improve its position in any way conflict with American security interests. Some in Taiwan will disagree with me on what Taiwan should be doing to improve its position. I happen to agree with Tom Christensen that frontal challenges by Taiwan to the PRC’s hegemonic position in state-based international institutions are self-defeating and leave Taiwan worse off, not better. Because Taiwan is at a disadvantage in the international arena, it has to play smart, and that includes working with its best friend, the United States.

Should Taiwan people love Taiwan? Of course they should. But they should understand, as I know they do, that love of Taiwan should be accompanied a keen sense of self-preservation. Should Taiwan people capitulate to China? Of course not. But they should be wise and pragmatic in the ways they address the PRC challenge and remain open and pragmatic to the opportunities that the Mainland has to offer. Should the United States ignore the impulses of Taiwan’s democracy? Of course not. But Taiwan people in turn need to perfect and consolidate their democracy so that it reflects well the aspirations of the people – all the people, not just one faction. A consolidated democracy will also ease the task of strengthening Taiwan in the various areas where it has unfortunately fallen behind in the past few years.

Should the United States abandon “democratic Taiwan” for “communist China”? Of course not. But Taiwan can do its part for its relationship with America by doing four things. One: it can ensure that it possesses a sensible, credible, defense-based deterrent against the PLA. Two: it can take into account U.S. equities as the leading guarantor of peace and security in the entire East Asian region. Three: it can build greater consensus with the United States on whether, when, and how to create the impression in Beijing that the door to unification is closing, for Beijing remains calm as long as there is hope for the future. And four: it can maintain good communication on doing One, Two, and Three.

As I have said, there will always be a certain amount of tension when two security partners are also democracies. But if a security partnership is important, as I believe it is in the case of the United States and Taiwan; and if our leaders can, based on mutual trust and respect, take each other’s interests into account as they make their decisions, then there is no reason why that tension should be high and drive us apart. Instead, the fact that we are democracies and security partners will bring our countries together and work to the benefit of our two peoples.