The Buzz

It's Not Time to Start Worrying About Taiwan

Good policy making benefits from factually up-to-date, open-source analysis taking place in a public space and conducted by policy specialists, journalists, and scholars. This kind of analysis is even more critical when its subject is Taiwan, a country of pivotal importance for U.S. interests in East and Southeast Asia. Yet, more often than not, Taiwan-related analysis is based on outdated narratives and incomplete understandings that offer only misleading policy implications.

For example, in a recent article for The National Interest, Michael Casey offers a conventional view on the near future of relations between China and Taiwan under which cross-Strait relations are “threatened” when the pro-Taiwanese independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in power:

Even though President Tsai espouses a more moderate approach to cross-Strait relations than her DPP predecessor, her policies and especially the actions of her party threaten cross-Strait relations… President Tsai established a mechanism to resolve maritime disputes with Japan…

Both sides enjoyed closer relations during the previous KMT administration of President Ma Ying-jeou from 2008 to 2016, and the PRC will do what it can to precipitate a return to KMT rule. There is some indication that Beijing will aggressively pressure the new president and explore how far it can go in imposing its own terms on the relationship.

This reading of affairs is remarkable, not the least because Casey apparently thinks Taipei negotiating to solve mutual problems with Tokyo is somehow provocative. Casey correctly asserts that Beijing prefers the (Kuomintang) KMT to the DPP, and seems to think that Washington should as well:

The United States benefited from improved cross-Strait relations under the previous KMT administration. Improved relations freed scarce resources, such as the time and attention of national-security decisionmakers, and permitted the Obama administration to improve bilateral relations between the United States and ROC. The United States has an abiding interest in peace and stability between Beijing and Taipei. A return to the hostile noncontact that characterized relations from 2000 to 2008 threatens the peaceful management of other regional issues, such as North Korea or territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.

He is hardly alone in this assessment. Richard Bush, the prominent Taiwan expert at Brookings, also argues that the past eight years across the Strait were beneficial for the United States. In the run-up to the 2016 elections he asserted that KMT’s victory is preferable for U.S. interests (p. 21):

Logically, the outcome that would be best for the United States is a victory by Eric Chu, because his cross-Strait policies would be consistent with Ma Ying-jeou’s, which have reduced the salience of the Taiwan issue in a U.S.-China relationship littered with other problems.

Likewise, Lyle J. Goldstein, an incomparable expert on the People’s Liberation Army, echoes the hoary chestnut of peaceful relations on Ma Ying-jeou’s watch:

The only reason that Taiwan has been, by and large, out of the headlines since 2008 is that the island’s leader Ma Yingjeou quite radically shifted course from his two predecessors and bravely pursued a rapprochement with the mainland. That far-sighted policy has made for eight quiet years. Only readers unfamiliar with the very dicey situation across the Taiwan Strait from 1997–2007 could fail to appreciate the welcome and prosperous calm that has characterized the Taiwan issue over the last several years.

These are not a few cherry-picked quotes—such analyses of cross-Strait relations from U.S. perspective are commonplace (see here, here, here, or here).

Narratives like these generally rest on three main assumptions. First, Chen Shui-bian’s two-term presidency (2000-2008), the first for the erstwhile opposition DPP, was one of  constant conflict across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan was a troublemaker rocking the boat, increasing Chinese anxiety, and potentially threatening to drag the United States into military conflict. Second, the era of KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) was an eight-year-long bright sunny day that came after the age of darkness. Third, an inevitable crisis is coming, because the DPP is in power again.