Taiwan and trustAfter the Kuomintang rout of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s legislative elections in January, international observers are speculating on how Taiwan will reorient its foreign policy. Both candidates for Taiwan’s March 22 presidential contest have pledged to rebuild trust with the United States.
Trust between Taipei and Washington is of vital importance, first because Taiwan’s security and responsible diplomacy hinge on avoiding the perception of abandonment by the Unites States. Second, mutual trust is essential to the stabilizing role of the U.S. in cross-Strait relations because Washington needs assurance that Taipei will not trap it in an unnecessary conflict with China. Third, any lack of trust between Taiwan and the U.S. injects unwelcome uncertainty into both sides’ relations with Beijing.
In the early days of George W. Bush’s administration, U.S. support for Taiwan was approaching a level not seen in decades. Today, mutual confidence in the relationship is reminiscent of the low ebb of the 1970s. Before laying out an agenda for improving U.S.-Taiwan relations, it is useful to examine the reasons why trust was so badly damaged during President Chen Shui-bian’s tenure.
First, there were perceptions of betrayal on both sides. Chen articulated in his 2000 inaugural address “four nos” regarding Taiwan’s international status. The United States considered Chen’s subsequent statements on Taiwan’s independence, initiatives to use the name Taiwan instead of Republic of China, discontinuation of the National Unification Council and pursuit of referendum politics, as going back on his word. International friends of Taiwan saw Chen use their support and cooperation to score partisan points. Chen’s identity politics meant to garner votes domestically came at the expense of trust internationally.
Meanwhile, some in Taiwan felt that Washington had abandoned Taiwan for profitable relations with China and post-9/11 security priorities. They allege that Washington takes cues from Beijing on how to deal with Taiwan. Some groups in Taiwan believe that the island is so strategically important, America must protect it, and that “standing up to China” is what Washington really wants. They feel betrayed when U.S. officials restate their position of “no unilateral change to the status quo” and criticize Taiwan policies.
Second, there was a lack of consultation and mutual respect. Trust between the United States and Taiwan needs open and stable communication between executive and legislative branches. Unfortunately, Washington places prohibitive restrictions on official contacts. Furthermore, the Chen administration fell short in staffing foreign policy. Many policy experts remained loyal to the Kuomintang camp while Chen’s DPP lacked human resources and did not effectively reach across the aisle. Chen often shuffled appointed positions for political reasons; with such turnover, it proved difficult to develop coherent policy and build trust with other governments.
Chen’s administration also sprang surprises ― such as “one country, each side” or discontinuing the Unification Council ― without meaningful consultation with Washington. Unpredictability damages trust, as does diplomatic scolding. The Bush administration felt compelled to admonish Taiwan publicly, especially regarding the referendum on United Nations membership. While it is unlikely to pass, it caused unfortunate perceptions of Washington not adequately respecting Taiwan’s democracy and Taiwan not adequately respecting U.S. interests.
Third, Taiwan politics were fiercely contested, causing defense policy to become over-politicized. Taiwan’s young democracy remains handicapped by lack of international recognition and susceptibility to united front tactics by Beijing. Chen’s domestic credibility was dangerously low since his reelection in 2004 amid charges of corruption and mismanagement. The long-ruling Kuomintang had no experience of how to act as a loyal opposition.
Defense policy, particularly arms purchases approved by Washington, became a political football. By not funding the arms package, Taiwan appeared to be spurning cooperation with the U.S. and not taking responsibility for self-defense.
Fourth, the strategic visions of Taiwan and the United States began to diverge. Both Washington and Taipei realize that cross-Strait relations are an important test of China’s “peaceful rise” and desire to be seen as a responsible power. Washing-ton believes the test is in progress and wants to see China succeed to everyone’s benefit.
In contrast, the current leadership in Taipei appears convinced China will fail the test, making consolidation of Taiwan’s independence an urgent priority. Overwhelming shared interests and values suggest that strategic visions will re-converge, but not without due effort.
Future combinations of policymakers in both Taiwan and the United States will take lessons from these trials. Even then, restoring mutual trust will not be easy. America’s attention will continue to be absorbed elsewhere.
Meanwhile, as China’s power and international interdependence have grown, so too has the weight of its preferences in the diplomatic calculations of other countries. Taipei is frustrated not only by this political disadvantage, but also by how Beijing’s heightened confidence has allowed it to show restraint and employ soft power. As a result, China has appeared reasonable, while defense-oriented democratic Taiwan is seen as recklessly indulging in identity politics.
The greatest challenge for the next president will be stabilizing Taiwanese identity. Key for restoring U.S.-Taiwan trust and improving Taiwan’s standing will be the next government’s ability to build domestic consensus for a strategic vision that advances interests (international competitiveness, secure autonomy) before desires (international reputation, formal independence).
Political parties need to offer different ideas for the future rather than different versions of the past. Policy debates should be informed by facts about results rather than accusations of insufficient love of Taiwan. Taiwan’s identity needs to be focused on what is good about Taiwan rather than what is bad about China, and what Taiwan contributes to the world rather than what the world owes Taiwan.
Identities are naturally dynamic and contested. What is needed is wise leadership to restore trust in government and chart a trajectory endorsed by an inclusive majority of the Taiwan people.
The upcoming presidential election can be a vehicle for stabilizing Taiwan’s identity, and thus a significant step in improving trust with the United States.
*The writer is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, a member of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders program, and a visiting scholar at UCLA.
by Leif-Eric Easley