Next month’s inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan offers a unique opportunity for Washington to address two fraught issues in U.S.-China relations.
First, sending an appropriate high-level American official to Taipei would signal U.S. commitment to the democratic security of Taiwan in the face of Beijing’s intensifying pressure.
Second, it would elevate Taiwan’s status as a regional security ally, while using a diplomatic/political tool to respond to China’s increasingly aggressive moves.
The sweeping victory of Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party rankles Beijing for good reason. The Taiwanese people soundly rejected deeper political ties with China, let alone any prospect of unification.
Tsai was circumspect in discussing the cross-strait political and security situation during the campaign and in her victory speech. But her noncommittal stance on “one China” is unacceptable to Beijing.
China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law threatens the use of force against Taiwan not only if it declares formal independence but also if “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted” – a contingency Beijing may have decided has now arrived. Henry Kissinger warned Taiwan in 2007 that “China will not wait forever.” And Xi Jinping said in 2013, “the [Taiwan] issue cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
Yet, even the Kuomintang Party under President Ma Ying-jeou said unification could be considered only with a democratic China. But Beijing never seems to grasp that the more it threatens Taiwan, the more it alienates younger generations of Taiwanese. They see how China treats the people of Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” model Deng Xiaoping offered both societies.
The Obama administration should make clear that the Taiwanese people are entitled to determine their relationship with China, without force or coercion from Beijing.
After all, five generations of Chinese leaders have failed to meet Western expectations regarding China’s domestic political evolution. Though former premier Wen Jiabao repeatedly promised progress toward democratization, Xi has defiantly moved in the opposite direction, even reviving Mao Zedong’s teachings.
Nor have Western policies of diplomatic engagement, international integration, and generous trade and investment moderated Beijing’s posture of grievance and hostility toward the West.
Forty-five years ago, President Richard Nixon and Kissinger may well have given a tacit green light to China’s hostile designs on Taiwan. Kissinger recounts telling Mao he was surprised Beijing would be willing to wait 100 years to take the island.
But Taiwan’s remarkable political development since then, and China’s dreary, and sometimes bloody, adherence to authoritarianism have invalidated any secret understanding reached over the heads of the Taiwanese people.
Nixon himself wrote in Beyond Peace in 1994 that history had outdated unification and Taiwan’s democratic course made it an incompatible marriage partner for China. “The situation has changed dramatically … The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically.”
Preparing for China’s coming leadership changes, U.S. President Barack Obama in 2011 dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Beijing to meet with then Vice President Xi and cultivate a personal rapport that would then seamlessly become a president-to-president relationship with Xi’s ascension to China’s top positions.
Yet, despite a series of touted Biden-Xi and Obama-Xi meetings since then, U.S.-China relations on key security issues have deteriorated significantly under Xi’s rule. The most dangerous area is the South China Sea, where Beijing has moved aggressively against its neighbors and challenged America’s role as protector of freedom of navigation and overflight.
Recently, China further aggravated the situation by test-firing a multiple-warhead missile into the South China Sea, raising the specter of a first-strike capability, despite its disavowals of such an intention.
The Obama administration needs to let the Chinese know that the United States will not stand idly by if China escalates its pressure on Taiwan. It is time to end the “strategic ambiguity” regarding America’s commitment to defend Taiwan. Nor should Washington abide Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, where the former’s tepid and half-hearted response has not deterred further Chinese expansionism.
The administration should affirm America’s position on both issues by demonstrating that the longstanding policy of excessive U.S. restraint in the face of Chinese provocation is coming to an end. That can be done first by responding in a non-military, yet dramatic, manner that will demonstrate to Xi that his strong-arm tactics will have unforeseen consequences.
Tsai’s inauguration on May 20 provides the right occasion and choosing the right U.S. representative is important. The president should once again dispatch his vice president on a signaling mission addressed to China’s leaders. Sending Biden to Taipei will send a useful message to Beijing.
Joseph A. Bosco is a member of the U.S.-China task force at the Center for the National Interest and a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of Defense from 2005-2006.