A Step in the Right Direction

What does the upcoming March election in Taiwan mean for U.

What does the upcoming March election in Taiwan mean for U.S.-Taiwan-China relations?   Will Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian move forward and hold his purposed constitutional referendum?  Will the Chinese respond with military force as threatened in order to prevent any moves toward independence by Taiwan?  Were a conflict scenario to play out, would the U.S. be willing to exercise military muscle outside of its current war on terrorism?

Fortunately, a step in the "right" direction ("right" reflecting progress away from possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait) has been made.  Recently President Bush publicly recognized that the long-held U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity in the Taiwan Strait was insufficiently cautious.  During the December visit to the United States of Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, President Bush clarified his administration's stance when he warned both sides of the Strait, "We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo."

Bush's call for stability in the Taiwan Strait was pragmatic and based on American national interest.  The U.S. is currently in no position to risk becoming involved in yet another potentially large-scale conflict.  As a result of the war on terrorism, American resources have already been stretched thin.  In fact, The Washington Post recently reported that the U.S. Army is considering implementing a "stop loss" policy forbidding any soldier returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to retire for a period of 90 days.   

While the United States respects Taiwan's rising democracy, it should not feel obligated to put at risk its own national interests for President Chen and his supporters.  Critics from both the left and right have been quick to accuse Bush of snubbing Taiwan's democratic aims at the expense of appeasing the dictatorial leadership in the PRC.  In fact, the opposite is true.  By clarifying the U.S. position in the Taiwan Strait, President Bush made noteworthy progress. 

Communication failure in the triangular relationship of the Strait has been a principal contributing factor to cross-Strait tensions since 1949.  By shedding some of the ambiguity surrounding U.S. policy and openly informing both sides of the Strait that the U.S. opposes any unilateral attempts to alter the status quo, the likelihood of miscalculation by either party has been decreased. 

In his comments on December 9th, President Bush explicitly reprimanded Chen's recent "comments and actions" claiming that they "indicate that he [Chen] may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we [the United States] oppose."  Despite this warning, President Chen has not backed down from his proposal to hold the March 20th referendum.  Nevertheless, it appears a small shift in the Chen administration's agenda is underway.  The Taiwan Foreign Minister, Eugene Chien was cited in the Financial Times on January 6th as stating, "We will not conduct a referendum on March 20 without having reached an understanding with the U.S."  Therefore, although President Chen continues to assert his intention to hold the March 20th referendum, Foreign Minister Chien's remark indicates that the Chen administration intends to, at least internally, pay heed to Bush's call for stability in the Strait. 

While successfully urging the Chen administration toward exercising more caution in the run-up to the March elections, the Bush policy in the Taiwan Strait still has room for improvement.  President Bush's public scolding of Chen's recent actions demonstrates the need for even more improved communication, most notably between Washington and Taipei to take place.  Unless more open dialogue occurs between the U.S., PRC and Taiwan during the forthcoming months preceding the Taiwan presidential election, the risk of increased tensions and potential conflict will remain.  Open and clear communication not ambiguity is the best approach for all parties involved in this complex trilateral relationship.


Travis Tanner is the Assistant Director of the China Studies Program at The Nixon Center.