A Taiwan Plan for the Next U.S. President

A Taiwan Plan for the Next U.S. President

How to shore up U.S. interests without sparking war.

At the political level, the future U.S. president should avoid unduly cornering the Taiwanese president by siding with Beijing on matters pertaining to unification, “one China” and the so-called 1992 consensus. Soon after President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration on May 20, Beijing used her administration’s refusal to directly acknowledge the “1992 consensus” to shut down some, albeit not all, official communication channels between the two sides. Beijing has used this to corner Tsai and to portray her administration as a troublemaker and impediment to peace in the Taiwan Strait.

Rather than exacerbate the pressure on her, the future U.S. president should strive for neutrality in the matter, while acknowledging that President Tsai’s position on the so-called consensus is representative of the wishes of the twenty-three million Taiwanese who democratically elected her on January 16. Inasmuch as it can play the role of facilitator on the matter, the United States should encourage both sides continue to communicate and promote the view, held by a number of people in China, that cross-Strait ties should not be held hostage by the trivialities of language (e.g., insistence on 1992 consensus). As long as the Tsai administration meets its share of the deal by adhering to the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait—and there is no indication at this point that it intends to do otherwise—the United States should refrain from pressuring Taipei in the manner it did on some occasions during the Chen Shui-bian era (2000–08).

In order to fully understand President Tsai’s intentions and calculations, it will be essential for the future president to have trusted ears on the ground in Taiwan. To this end, the American Institute in Taiwan, the United States’ de facto embassy in the absence of official diplomatic ties, will need to ensure it maintains a thoroughgoing relationship with the Tsai administration. Direct contact at senior levels may therefore be necessary, necessitating a willingness on Washington’s part to dispatch higher-ranking officials to Taipei or allowing more senior Taiwanese diplomats to visit government buildings in the United States.

Ultimately, the guiding principle of any future U.S. administration for how to handle the trilateral relationship should be that the continued existence of Taiwan as a free, liberal-democratic system is ultimately in the interest of the United States—and this is exactly the message that China’s political/information warfare campaign seeks to undermine, by coopting persons of influence who argue instead that “ceding” Taiwan to China would serve U.S. interests.

Taiwan represents a test of wills, a line at sea that will determine whether China is to become a responsible stakeholder or a hegemon that writes its own rules. It will also be a crucial determinant of other Asian countries’ threat perceptions and confidence in the reliability of the United States’ security umbrella.

As National Endowment for Democracy president Carl Gershman said earlier this month during a visit to Taipei, Taiwan is a rare example of a truly successful democracy. Despite their differences, both Democratic and Republican parties are committed to defending democratic values abroad, even if they sometimes fail to do so at home. Helping to defend Taiwan’s democratic achievements, especially in times of democratic retrenchment globally, is not only the moral thing to do: allowing Taiwan to be absorbed by authoritarian China, whether by military means or as a result of abandonment, would only embolden the ultranationalistic forces in Beijing and sideline the moderates, which would mean more trouble, and potentially more tripwires, for the United States in a markedly more unstable Asia.

Taiwan is a line in the sea. Neither U.S. presidential candidate will want to be remembered as the leader who allowed the latter scenario to occur.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior non-resident fellow with the China Policy Institute at University of Nottingham, a research associate with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC), and chief editor of The News Lens International. His book Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait will be published by Routledge in September.

Image: Taiwanese guard. Flickr/Tai Gray