The relationship between the United States and Taiwan is as complex as it is long-standing. The recent political theatre in Taiwan over the import of U.S. beef has illustrated how, though relations between them remain unofficial, Taiwan and the U.S. maintain constantly open channels of communication. The relationship is multi-faceted, semantically shifting, ambiguous and delicate. It is also crowded. Taiwan has another, quite possessive, suitor—one who is keen to see the U.S.-Taiwan bilateral relationship run from Washington to Beijing rather than through Taipei. This is in fact a trilateral relationship, made all the more complicated by ongoing and competing nation building efforts in Taiwan, as well as overlapping claims of sovereignty and territory between the Republic of China government on Taiwan (R.O.C.) and the Peoples Republic of China (P.R.C.) government. Taiwan's relationship with Japan adds another dimension to U.S.-Taiwan interaction; the current spat between Taiwan, China, and Japan over the Senkaku Islands may seem to be a localized dispute but also works for both the Ma administration and the P.R.C. as an irritant to the smooth functioning of both U.S.-Taiwan and Japan-Taiwan ties.
If U.S. Taiwan policy was not convoluted enough, the transition to democracy has added an element of uncertainty to Taiwan's political compass. Between 2000 and 2008, the U.S. failed to engage constructively with the successive administrations of the Taiwan-identifying Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Looking back, those eight years now represent missed opportunities for the U.S. to deepen their relationship to Taiwan as part of preparing, politically, economically, and militarily, for the rising regional clout of China. Since 2008, the U.S., by implication and inaction, instead chose to tacitly support the China-identifying Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and do so ostensibly in the name of 'stability' and maintaining the 'status-quo'. The U.S. has instead found itself dealing with a government on Taiwan that is more interested in transforming the Taipei-Beijing relationship, even if it means straining the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. For a few years there, Washington thought that it knew the script; Beijing would complain about some slight or insult it had suffered from the pro-Taiwan government and it was the job of State to deliver Taipei a slap on the wrist and a warning against 'provocative acts'. It has yet to devise an effective strategy or protocol for a response when Taipei is directly provoking the U.S., and its allies in the region. Instead of managing sustainable multilateral relationships simultaneously to the advantage of the U.S. economy and regional stability, Washington is being played.
Examples abound. Negative comments about DPP Chairwoman and candidate Tsai Ing-wen by Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to President Obama, before the combined 2012 Presidential and Legislative elections in Taiwan appeared to have been timed to indicate Washington's preference for President Ma's reelection. Furthermore, during the beef crisis there were allegations that a quid pro quo had been agreed between Washington and the Ma Administration that U.S. beef imports would be assured if Ma won reelection. Then strangely, a few weeks before the election, the U.S. announced that Taiwan was now being considered for visa waiver, one of President Ma's stated goals. This gave the impression that Washington saw a vote for Ma as a safe bet for Taiwanese and a vote for business, regional stability, and a low maintenance relationship with Taiwan. Yet, after the election Ma made no real effort to lift the ban on U.S. beef, allowing various agencies to toss the hot potato issue around between them.
Although the beef issue was resolved in part, there are still no indications that the Ma government wishes to take Taiwan's defense seriously by making any further orders for military hardware of any significance. U.S. legislators know Taiwan needs weapons systems and aircraft to defend itself, but the U.S. government bows to Chinese government pressure whilst fretting that it's advanced technology would leak across the Taiwan Strait. It is purposely ignoring the fact that the Ma administration doesn't want the weapons and is downscaling Taiwan's military capability by making it a volunteer force and cutting its budget. This is not a government that is seeking a stronger relationship with the U.S., but one that is downscaling such ties in favor of greater interaction with Zhongnanhai. Yet the U.S. government has refrained from criticizing the Ma administration; this is in direct contrast to the slurry of warnings it aimed at former pro-Taiwan President Chen almost every time Beijing claimed provocation, without first considering whether the charges leveled were fair, accurate, or deliberately manufactured. Washington has also continued to mischaracterize various recent agreements between the KMT and CCP as indicating a more stable and more mutual relationship between Taiwan and China, yet almost every Chinese official statement and diplomatic action to isolate Taiwan has spoken of the contrary.
Washington is being played because it does not understand that President Ma is a Chinese nationalist whose stated ultimate goal is to lay the foundations for the annexation of Taiwan into a 'Greater China', with whose culture and history he feels a deep and abiding affinity and shared sense of identity. A quick look at President Ma's inaugural addresses quickly confirm that he identifies more closely with the Yellow Emperor than with indigenous Taiwanese. Washington is being played because it does not recognize the Chinese exceptionalism that seeks to challenge the claimed exceptionalism of U.S. global economic and military dominance. It is starting to seem like the U.S., particularly its Taiwan policy, has been caught entirely off foot and wrong handed.
Alarmingly, instead of listening to those who would invest in, formalize, and deepen the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and boldly correct course, the Obama administration has chosen to continue the anachronistic and transparent policy of 'strategic ambiguity' whilst scrambling around to find a way to also slow China's path to regional hegemony and buy time for a U.S. 'pivot to Asia'—itself little more than a slogan covering a realignment of U.S. military force away from costly interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It has continued to construct China policy on the increasingly fragile premise that Beijing wants to avoid confrontation, as per its claims of a 'peaceful rise'. Yet this analysis is based on the false premises that Beijing can be sated, that its territorial claims will end at Taiwan—how about the South China Sea or Arunachal Pradesh—and that the Chinese economy with remain as important to the U.S. in the next few decades as it has become over the last. The U.S.-China relationship is all important to the State Department whilst it neglects and distrusts Taiwan, which could be one of the United States' most potent East Asian allies. Taiwan has good or stable relationships with U.S. allies Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines whereas, with the exception of Indonesia, China has either deeply imbalanced trade or strained diplomatic relations with all of those nations. Taiwan has a population that actively values and practices its own de facto geographical, democratic, economic, and political independence whereas China remains a police-state under a one-party dictatorship. Taiwan is a nation with a major globalized economy waiting to be recognized.
Some form of conflict with China looms on the horizon. If it comes to pass, it is already clear that it will have been in large part fostered by U.S. short-sightedness and ignorance of the complex and shifting politics of the region. The U.S. faces difficult questions. What is Taiwan now? What is the new 'status-quo'? Is Taiwan still an ally or increasingly a facilitator of Beijing hegemony? If Washington was relieved with the results of the last Taiwanese election, perhaps they are not so comfortable now with how President Ma is playing his part in the shaping of a new and possibly explosive R.O.C.-P.R.C. dynamic, as Japan is increasingly discovering. One thing does seem clear, U.S. foreign policy must start to address the elephant in the room, China. If letting Taiwan slide towards China will not solve tensions then what utility is appeasement of Beijing's 'sensitivities' and talk of stability?
Counterintuitively, although it risks a break in U.S.-Sino relations—one that may come anyway as Chinese-Japanese tensions grow—now is the time to clarify U.S. policy on Taiwan, recognize Taiwan as a nation and establish formal links and embassies between Taiwan and the U.S.A., under the name "Taiwan". Now is the time for U.S. pressure on international institutions to include Taiwan, and for full and unconditional Taiwanese membership of the United Nations. Taiwan's internal politics would also benefit from U.S. policy clarity on Taiwan. It would send a clear message that U.S. support for Taiwanese self-determination is unconditional thereby likely ending the debate in Taiwan over the status and identity of the nation and the direction of its future. It would make redundant the question of the definition of 'One China', leaving the KMT a choice of whether to transform into a wholly Taiwan based and identifying party or risk alienation and electoral irrelevance by continuing to defend the existence of the R.O.C. and it's claim to be the real China. It might also finally allow the process of transition to democracy, and truth and reconciliation for past KMT colonization and dictatorship, to be completed, bridging the current political divide in the nation and bringing some long sought relief for the victims and families of the victims.
Although recognizing Taiwan will come at a diplomatic and economic cost to the U.S., and could spark a wider perhaps even military confrontation with China, if some form of conflict is increasingly inevitable perhaps the U.S. should ask itself whether they would prefer to enter it on their terms, and with as many allies as possible, or be dragged into it unwittingly and minus the support of Taiwan and the Taiwanese. The Boy Scout motto is 'Be Prepared'. Taiwanese are ready and prepared to be accepted fully into the international community and they are more than ready for formal relations with the U.S. as a trusted ally. For its part, the U.S. needs to prepare a new and clear Taiwan policy, one that builds on past investment and does not discard it for an imagined short-term advantage or a false calm before the storm.