US Prefers Ma but will work with Tsai

Today, the U.S. finally announced that Taiwan has been officially listed as a candidate for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP).  The announcement was made just three weeks before Taiwan’s presidential elections.  It came on the heels of a visit to Taiwan in early December by US Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman, the highest ranking US official to visit the island in eleven years.  In September, U.S. Assistant Commerce Secretary Suresh Kumar traveled to Taiwan.

This spate of visits and policy decisions comes after an extended lull in the US-Taiwan relationship, with only a trickle of official exchanges and a lot of rancor over Taiwan’s re-imposition of a ban on imports of U.S. beef in January 2010.  The recent steps are welcome; they further consolidate an already strong US-Taiwan relationship.   Taiwan is America’s ninth largest trading partner and a growing import market for US exports.  Last year US exports to Taiwan surged 41 percent to $26 billion.  Nevertheless, the fact that these steps were taken so close to Taiwan’s elections calls into question the Obama administration’s claim to being neutral about the election’s outcome.  Although US officials studiously avoid saying so directly, there is a clear preference for Ma Ying-jeou to win a second term in office.

US worries about a DPP victory derive in part from the US experience with Chen Shui-bian, who pursued pro-independence measures that Beijing judged as provocative, resulting in heightened tensions in both cross-Strait and US-China relations.  Even though the DPP and its presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen have learned lessons from that period, the US still has lingering worries.  Tsai’s unwillingness to be forthcoming about concrete policies toward the Mainland that she would pursue if elected has exacerbated Washington’s concerns.

Obama administration officials’ preference for a Ma victory is also a consequence of their hope to avoid introducing additional contentious issues to the increasingly complicated US-China agenda.  Bilateral tensions have run high in recent years over a long list of issues, including North Korea, South China Sea, China’s military modernization, and China’s currency valuation and trade practices.  US arms sales to Taiwan in January 2010 and September 2011 infuriated the Chinese and soured US-China relations as well, but the impact was relatively confined and short lived compared to the likely Chinese reaction to the return of the DPP to power.  Past experience demonstrates that when Chinese fears of Taiwan independence spike, other issues are crowded out in US-Chinese consultations, making compromises and solving problems even more difficult than usual.

If Tsai wins, the US will do its utmost to encourage the DPP to be pragmatic in its approach to Beijing, while at the same time pressing China to be flexible as well.  Finding a mutually acceptable formula that would enable the semi-official SEF-ARATS channel to remain open will be an urgent priority.  Active diplomacy would likely be undertaken by the US to urge both sides of the Taiwan Strait to find a creative way forward that enables the numerous cross-Strait communication channels that have been established in recent years to continue to function.

Regardless of whether Beijing and Taipei are able to work out a modus vivendi, in the absence of policy steps by Taiwan that damage American interest in the maintenance of cross-Strait peace and stability, US-Taiwan relations are likely to remain positive and strong.  Washington may see advantages in a Ma Ying-jeou victory, but if Tsai is elected, the U.S. will look forward, and seek to work with her to develop a positive relationship and sustain robust ties.  If Chinese leaders assume that the US will reflexively revert to the old playbook that was employed during the Bush administration to cope with Chen Shui-bian to manage a new situation, they would be mistaken.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a Senior Fellow in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS