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Foreign Policy

Detaching Taiwan from US China Policy Is Self-Deceptive

Dec 16 , 2011
  • Xu Shiquan

    Vice Chairman, National Society of Taiwan Studies, SIIS

The “long and often discordant ” polemics over the strategic value of Taiwan in America’ foreign and security policy has heated up again in recent months against the grand backdrop of China’s rise and Obama administration’s highly publicized “strategic turn” towards  Asia-Pacific. People who propone a readjustment of America’s Taiwan policy point to the crux of the issue: Taiwan remains the single and most dangerous flash point of a hot conflict between the U.S. and China. To dampen it, they argue, the U.S. should back away from its commitments to Taiwan, particularly arms sales, and thus smooth the way for better and more cooperative relations with China. The United States, with its increasingly scarce diplomatic resources, needs to deepen its working relationship with emerging powers like China in order to maintain its global leadership.

This line of thinking is unprecedentedly vocal among influential academics and foreign affairs specialists in many years. It nevertheless does not represent the mainstream at present. As if to deliver an executive and legislative verdict on the debate, the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives organized a testimony last October with the theme of “Why Taiwan Matters”. The assistant secretary of state for Asia and Pacific affairs Mr. Kurt Campbell, in his lengthy testimony, expounded in detail Obama Administration’s Taiwan policy. He touted America’s “unofficial relationship” with Taiwan as “an important component” to realizing “the Asia pivot in American foreign policy”, adding it also” advances many of our economic and security interests in the region.”  In conclusion, he expressed his confidence that “Taiwan’s future will always be based on a deep and abiding friendship” with the United States. His testimony is basically a re-affirmation of the policy, as he put it, across six different U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican. But for Chinese watchers of America’s Taiwan policy, the odd thing is Campbell’s assertion that “positive and constructive relations with China are not only consistent with our robust and diverse relationship with Taiwan, they are also mutually supporting.” When he touched upon the “the most high-profile element of U.S.-Taiwan relationship”—“our security ties with Taiwan”, his remarks were even odder: “It is in the national interest of the United States to build a stronger military relationship with the PRC, but doing so will not come at the expense of our relations with Taiwan; they are not mutually exclusive.” In the Chinese perspective, nothing is more illogic and misleading than these allegations. Yet, Mr. Campbell insisted that “our track record confirms” them. All right, let us take briefly stock of the track record.

In retrospect, it is everyone’s knowledge that the Sino-American relationship since 1949 has traversed an extremely bumpy path, full of twists and turns, and on a number of occasions, found itself on the brink of precipices. At the center of all the turbulences has been Taiwan. Of course, there were stormy moments other than conflicts over Taiwan, such as the U.S. missile bombardment of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May, 1999 and the airplane collision incident near the Hainan Island in April, 2001. These events severely damaged the bilateral relationship but they were largely regarded as isolated incidents. The gravest and most consequential damage was caused by Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States in May, 1995. China saw in it an unbridled infringement on its sovereignty and territory integrity and thus retaliated with a series of diplomatic lashing. China recalled its ambassador to Washington and delayed giving acceptance to the appointee of a new U.S. ambassador to Beijing. For the first time, and indeed the only time since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1997 that China and the U.S. had no ambassadors at each other’s capitals. The U.S. disregard of China’s core national interest ignited, as a more baleful consequence, the 1995—1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. The United States landed itself on the verge of a war with China.

Coming back to Obama administration’s handling of the Taiwan issue, facts in the last three years and more also vindicate that the Taiwan issue remains the major impediment to the sound development of the bilateral relationship. The three arms sales packages to Taiwan announced in 2008, 2010 and last month this year forced China to respond with retaliatory measures. Although the responses could not be formulary each time, but one thing is in common: the suspension of mil-to-mil contacts between the two countries. If, as Mr. Campbell previously said, “a stronger military relationship with the PRC” serves American national interest, then to sale arms to Taiwan in defiance of China’s opposition certainly goes counter to American national interest. In addition, it is inevitable that the cooperation between the two countries in dealing with many of the regional as well as international issues would be adversely affected. One doesn’t need further check of the track record of Sino-American relations before coming to a conclusion diametrically opposed to that of Mr. Campbell’s: interference in the Taiwan issue and good relations with China are mutually exclusive, not mutually supporting.  Mr. Campbell needs to be reminded of the English proverb: “No gain without pain”.

It is almost a national consensus in the United State today nowadays that the country is over-committed internationally. As some scholars pointed out, it is trying to accomplish too many things in too many places when American foreign policy is stymied by dwindling resources and worst partisan divisions in the country’s history. The priorities for the Obama administration, as one scholar suggests, should be to maintain the credibility of the dollar as the de facto reserve currency of the world; to halt the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and to maintain peaceful relations with China. As a “third eye”, the author thinks it is a very sensible advice. The three priorities are interlinked and mutually supporting. China is too willing to be helpful for the sake of mutual interest and China is helping the dollar by buying American treasury bonds and playing a pivotal role in the prevention of nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula. However, the United States should not take this for granted. As the Chinese saying goes, “it is not courteous not to return a visit.” Public opinion in China is mounting for more retributions the United States deserves for its encroachment on China’s sovereignty as in the case of Taiwan. Taiwan is the core and most sensitive issue in Sino-American relationship. To try to detach Taiwan from its China policy, the United States is only to deceive itself.


Xu Shiquan, vice chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies and former president of the Institute of Taiwan Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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