The Debate

Washington’s Obsolete Taiwan Policy

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The Debate

Washington’s Obsolete Taiwan Policy

The approach to Taiwan is strangely at odds with its policy elsewhere in the region.

Washington’s Obsolete Taiwan Policy
Credit: Sunflower Movement via Kenny /

The ballots were barely stored for the 2014 local election in Taiwan when a raft of articles appeared in the U.S. media arguing that the shattering victory of the opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over the pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) presaged another round of “tensions” across the Taiwan Strait. Rising zombie-like from its grave, this line revived an old criticism of the administration of DPP President Chen Shui-bian. From 2000 to 2008, when he was in power, Chen was accused of “provoking” China and causing “tension” in the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, in many media presentations, China was often depicted as the helpless victim of DPP provocations, without any agency of its own. Poor China!

Since the military, bureaucracy, police, and legislature remained under KMT control, there was never any possibility that Chen could roll out of bed one morning and declare independence, as all knew. Instead, these unreal but constant accusations of “tension” served Beijing’s desire to suppress and discredit Chen and the DPP, both on its own behalf and to help its ally, the KMT. For a variety of reasons, commentators began repeating the KMT and Beijing line that Chen Shui-bian was “provocative,” especially after Chen won a second term. The U.S. government also eventually followed suit. Since one of Beijing’s major strategic goals is to transfer tension from the Washington-Beijing relationship to the Washington-Taipei relationship, every official U.S. hack on Chen Shui-bian and subsequent DPP leaders since has been a strategic victory for Beijing.

The simple reality is that the DPP does not increase tensions nor does the KMT soothe them. Instead, Beijing chooses the level of tensions it feels it needs to manage its relations with Washington, Taipei, and the two major Taiwan parties, while blaming others for its actions. For Beijing, “tension” is a foreign policy choice used to manipulate its interlocutors.

The claim that Taiwan “causes tension” has a striking uniqueness: In all other instances of tension along the Chinese frontier, U.S. officials and commentators routinely and assumptively treat China as the source of tension. It is only Taiwan that is different. For example, in the late 1960s Beijing suddenly manufactured a historically absurd and legally indefensible claim to the Senkaku Islands of Japan. The U.S. has asserted that it will defend the islands under the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty and criticized China’s illegal air-defense identification zone and other aggressive acts. Nor has the U.S. been shy in criticizing China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, recently offering a highly publicized legal document refuting the Chinese claims. The U.S. also conducts diplomacy with regional powers obviously aimed at countering China. Washington and the U.S. media seldom publicly criticize Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, or Indonesian leaders for resisting Chinese expansion (“causing tension”). Only Taiwan receives that treatment.

Washington’s strange Taiwan policy, criticizing the pro-Taiwan side for resisting Chinese expansion (“causing tension”) while supporting the pro-China party in Taiwan (and indirectly, China itself), is deeply at odds with U.S. policy elsewhere in Asia. Because it is a policy predicated on the dominance of the KMT, given the changes sweeping Taiwan, it is rapidly becoming a policy in search of a future. The recent local election loss, which left the KMT in disarray, is merely the distant glow of the forest fire on the horizon that incoming KMT Chairman Eric Chu may find it difficult to hold at bay, even with the KMT’s huge resource advantages.

First, the KMT is run by a ruling caste of insiders who hand down the KMT from generation to generation. The next generation is thin indeed. The children of many powerful KMT leaders have foreign citizenship – the president’s own children are Americans – and little interest in Taiwanese politics. The losses of two of the three “princelings” (children of powerful leaders) in the 2014 elections shows that KMT’s privileged scions, even where they might exist, will find it difficult to win.

KMT elites have ruled Taiwan by showering local factions with patronage cash to gain their support. In return, local factions do not operate at the national level or form cross-regional networks. This center-local disconnect means that unlike political parties in modern democracies, the KMT lacks reliable mechanisms for bringing promising local politicians to the national level. Moreover, since local politics in Taiwan are notoriously dirty, successful local politicians are often seen as deeply corrupt and poor candidates for national office. Thus, at the moment, the KMT is a party with no obvious next generation of leaders and no clear program for cultivating them. Since long-term DPP success in the south has confined the KMT to a few northern districts and sparsely populated mountain areas, it also has no obvious place to foster future politicians with solid regional bases.

Ironically, the KMT’s close engagement with China engenders internal conflict. Chinese investments in local areas impact the local KMT faction networks on which KMT rule depends, fracturing links to the party center and souring its local support. Take the recent failure of the much ballyhooed services trade pact with China. In the international media, the student occupation of the legislature is often presented as a simpleminded ideological narrative of brave but short-sighted students opposing “free trade.” The reality is more complicated. The agreement permitted Chinese to operate service businesses in Taiwan, businesses that directly competed with those of local KMT legislative factions and their supporters and constituents. Hence, the KMT’s own local legislators wouldn’t vote for the deeply unpopular pact. The students moved on the legislature only when the KMT undemocratically attempted to circumvent the legislature by declaring the bill a law without a legislative vote.

The most serious problem facing the KMT, and thus, U.S. Taiwan policy, is the rapid demographic and economic change in Taiwan. Poll after poll shows that locals do not want to be part of China and think of themselves as Taiwanese, especially among the under-30 generation. The KMT has lost the young. The party’s claim to a superior economic record has been devastated by the performance of the Ma Administration. The KMT is widely seen as the party of big business, with wages returning to 1999 levels amid stagnant incomes. The Taipei housing bubble has forced young couples into neighboring counties to find housing, changing the solidly pro-KMT demographics of those regions. Though the rising generation is sick of the incompetence and venality of both major parties, the DPP does not share the KMT’s pro-China baggage. Further, emergent non-party political activism is also pro-Taiwan and hostile to KMT economic and political policies.

Finally, there is the ever-rising risk of conflict in Asia. Beijing’s zero-sum territorial demands are paired with provocative policies for maritime and other resources. The U.S. could be supporting a party and a people in Taiwan who have a deep, urgent interest in resistance to Chinese expansion, a natural asset for both Washington and Tokyo. Instead, U.S. support of the KMT means that Washington may find itself opposing Beijing across Asia with a government in Taipei that is more or less informally allied to Beijing and identifies with its expansionist goals.

Is that really where Washington wants to be?

Michael Turton blogs at The View from Taiwan.