Does the US have a preference in Taiwan’s elections?

In a recent post on this blog, Bonnie Glaser of CSIS asserted that the US announcement of Taiwan’s candidacy for the Visa Waiver Program and the recent spate of high-level US visits to the island were signs of a “clear preference” of the Obama administration for President Ma Ying-jeou over his challenger, Dr. Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP.

I cannot agree.  US officials have clearly stated that the VWP announcement had its own timeline, and was simply the result of Taiwan fulfilling a set of criteria set by the United States.  Indeed the negotiations on Taiwan’s participation in the Visa Waiver Program were initiated by the Chen Shui-bian administration and took several years in coming. Of course it is likely that the Ma administration has worked harder to fulfill those criteria with the upcoming elections in mind, but that is another story.

On the high-level visits: another reason for the recent spate might be that the Obama administration is listening more closely to Congress, which has been increasingly vocal in arguing for more high-level visits to the democratic island. If the US government would let the Taiwan elections play a role in decisions to send high level visitors to the island, it would actually be in clear contravention of its own stated policy of strict neutrality in the Taiwan elections. We can trust the US to stick to its words, can’t we?

But Glaser’s article is also problematic for other reasons. It portrays the US as having “lingering worries” and being concerned about “Tsai’s unwillingness to be forthcoming about concrete policies towards the Mainland that she would pursue if elected.”

There may be some officials in some corners of the US government who still cling to such a position, but there many others in the Obama administration and in Congress who are more concerned about President Ma drawing too closely towards China at the expense of relations with the United States.  They are pleased with Tsai’s vision of rebalancing Taiwan’s relations and moving it closer to the US and its allies in the region.

Dr. Tsai has shown herself to be a creative and pragmatic thinker, but the response — from Ma and from Beijing – has been to revert to old and empty “One China” mantras.

The “lingering worries” officials are also barking up the wrong tree: if they really want stability in cross-Strait relations they need to lean much more heavily on Beijing. The root cause of the instability is that China does not wish to have a democracy on its doorstep, and that it sees Taiwan as a springboard for its power expansion into the Pacific. Taiwan is not threatening China in any way, except by being a vibrant democracy.

Perhaps these US officials should wonder aloud whether the Chinese leaders are both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years. They might add that it is far from clear that the leaders in Beijing and their advisers fully appreciate the depth of the mistrust of their motives and PRC aspiration in countries surrounding China, and particularly in Taiwan.

The other problematic aspect in Glaser’s analysis is that she portrays a win by Tsai Ing-wen as adding a problematic issue to a long list of contentious issues, ranging from North Korea to the South China Sea.  It is a fiction to believe that by accommodating China on the Taiwan issue, one could get it to be more cooperative on other issues. China will play hardball on those other issues no matter what happens in Taiwan. The only way to get it to play by international rules is for the US to play hardball in return.

Winston Churchill once remarked that “One can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing …. after they have exhausted all other options.”   One would hope that the United States has learned its lessons from its earlier mistakes and that it will now be fully supportive of Taiwan and its democracy. The United States needs to show it wants to be on the right side of history.

Gerrit van der Wees is Senior Policy Advisor to the Formosan Association for Public Affairs and editor of Taiwan Communique, both based in Washington DC.