Charting a Strait Course

The Bush administration hasn’t done enough to maintain the precarious military balance between China and Taiwan. Will the next president be the same, or instead seize an opportunity to improve Beijing-Taipei relations?

On Saturday, President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China (PRC) met briefly with Vice President-elect Vincent Siew of the Republic of China (ROC). But while the meeting on the southern Chinese island of Hainan at the Boao Forum for Asia was extremely short in length (barely twenty minutes), it was long on significance. The talks were the highest-level contact between the two governments since sixty years ago, when the end of the Chinese civil war forced Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party (KMT) to flee the mainland for Taiwan.

According to Beijing's official Xinhua news agency, Hu said the encounter had "inspired us to think deep about cross-straits economic exchanges and cooperation under the new circumstances." He was obviously referring to the imminent inauguration of Siew's KMT running mate, Ma Ying-jeou, who decisively trounced Frank Hsieh of the Democratic Progressive Party in elections on Taiwan last month (see my analysis of the poll for TNI). Taipei's government-owned overseas broadcaster, Radio Taiwan International, quoted one of Siew's aides as saying that the meeting signaled "Taiwan's willingness to start making friends again" and observed that it was "the first test of the incoming government's pledges to forge closer economic and political ties with China." Speaking to the press in Washington on Friday, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte characterized the meeting as "a good way forward" even before it had even taken place, noting that "the best way to settle differences over the Taiwan Strait is by peaceful means and we think that dialogue between the People's Republic of China and the authorities, the leaders on Taiwan, is the best way forward."

The optimistic tone of the comments is certainly to be welcomed, not only in the region, but on this side of the Pacific as well. It is clearly in the interests of the United States to lower tensions between the parties on both sides of the strait. The PRC is America's largest trading partner (after Canada) as well as its only likely near-peer competitor in military affairs. Taiwan is not only a long-standing, if all-too-often neglected, partner, but also an indispensable supplier of components for America's computer and telecommunications needs, ranging from the Pentagon's sophisticated command-and- control systems to a suburban teenager's iPhone.

The presidential candidates have all talked a big game on Taiwan. Senator John McCain (R-NV), a long-time supporter of Taiwan, argued in a speech last year that "pointing nearly 900 missiles at Taiwan, passing laws [which] authorize force against the island, and continually practicing amphibious landings are not prudent ways to convince the world of China's peaceful rise." He kept it up with a statement last month after the island's presidential election, hailing the poll as a "fine example for the region." McCain was then followed by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), who said that she hoped "ways can be found to appropriately expand Taiwan's contributions to the international community." Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) has also argued that the administration should "reopen blocked channels of communication with Taiwan officials." With the arrival of a new president in Taiwan and the cross-strait military balance tipping toward China, it's time for Washington to become more directly engaged with both sides of the conflict. While carefully avoiding being cast in the role of "mediator," the United States must do its best  to help maintain the balance between them. But will the next administration really commit to a new course in Taiwan Strait policy, a course that the Bush administration has apparently lacked the vision and perhaps the diplomatic finesse to undertake?

After the ice was broken Saturday, Siew met privately on Sunday with PRC Commerce Minister Chen Deming before the two led a seminar for business executives from both sides, where they exchanged views on possible market openings. Further talks in the coming weeks will likely hammer out solutions to some of the logistical complications which have driven up the costs of cross-strait economic integration, including the lack of regular direct airline flights and restrictions on trade and investment (en route to the Boao conference, Siew and his delegation had to switch planes in Hong Kong). However, if the idea is that as economic ties between Beijing and Taipei increase-over one million Taiwanese already live and work on the mainland and businesses based on the island have invested an estimated $100 billion in Chinese enterprises-the two adversaries will be even more constrained to settle their differences peacefully, then the United States needs to do more than simply applaud progress when it happens.