Interview: Robert Sutter

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Interview: Robert Sutter

What might cross-strait relations and U.S. Taiwan policy look like following leadership changes in Taiwan and the U.S.?

Interview: Robert Sutter
Credit: Tsai Ing-wen via glen photo /

On May 20, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will be inaugurated as the new president of the Republic of China (Taiwan). She will be the first woman and only the second member of the independence-leaning DPP to hold Taiwan’s highest office.

Tsai’s repeated assertions that she intends to maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations have received cold responses from Beijing. High-level Chinese officials including President Xi Jinping have insisted that further positive development of cross-strait relations is conditioned upon Tsai’s acceptance of the “1992 Consensus” and its core connotation that Taiwan and China belong to one China. However, there is scant evidence to suggest that Tsai and her party are prepared to give in to Beijing’s demands. Just as cross-strait relations appear to be headed for a rough patch, the U.S. is preparing for its own leadership transition. The uncertain course of cross-strait relations combined with the leadership changes in Taipei and Washington make the coming months a critical period in U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Pac100’s Kristian McGuire speaks with Robert Sutter, Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University, about Taiwan and China’s current impasse over the “1992 Consensus,” the future of U.S.-Taiwan relations and more in this interview. (The following transcript has been edited for clarity.)

For the third time since 2000, the U.S. will need to adjust to a new administration in Taiwan while undergoing a leadership change itself. How would you compare this current transitional period in U.S.-Taiwan relations to those of 2000 and 2008?

That’s a very good question.

In 2008, that transition was quite smooth, I thought – basically smooth. I remember Ma Ying-jeou wanted to come here – I guess that was an issue of controversy in 2008 – come before he was sworn in as president. That wasn’t allowed. But the U.S. and China were pretty much on the same page in dealing with the excesses of Chen Shui-bian toward the end of the Bush administration. And Ma’s approach was basically saying these issues that the U.S. and China were facing from Chen Shui-bian would end. That was very welcomed. That transition, I think, went quite smoothly.

The transition in 2000 with Chen taking hold was something that the Clinton administration, they didn’t really want difficulty with China over Taiwan. But we had a different approach with the George W. Bush administration. When they came in – this was after Chen was already in power, he was in power maybe half a year – they came in power and they were very supportive of Taiwan, and they were not as sensitive to what Beijing felt about this issue. They were pretty in your face, actually. I mean, when you look at what Bush said on television, saying he would do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan. That was an extraordinary statement. And yet, the Chinese really didn’t do too much about that. There was a dynamic going on in U.S.-China relations that kept the Chinese from taking strident actions against that at that time. But then that policy of supporting Chen Shui-bian came back to bite the Bush administration because Chen went further and Bush got himself bogged down in Iraq and he didn’t want trouble with China over Taiwan after that. Therefore, he shifted against Chen Shui-bian and by 2003 he was very much against Chen Shui-bian’s excesses and very much concerned with stabilizing the situation. That continued until the end of his administration.

So the transition in 2000 was – Chen Shui-bian wasn’t such a change from Lee Teng-hui, but George W. Bush was a change from Bill Clinton. So we’ll see what kind of a change we have in 2016 in the United States.

So do you see any huge differences between the U.S. candidates right now?

Not much.

There is a lot of concern about China and it’s heavily economic. But then the security side comes in a lot – the discourse of the candidates on China has been on the economic mainly, and they haven’t gotten into this – but the establishments of the different parties, the Republican Party tends to be tougher on this issue on the security side. The previous candidate John McCain and people like that, they are very tough on China from the security point of view. But what they say about Taiwan is pretty limited, and so you’d have to extrapolate. I don’t think there is really much that they have said.

I assume that this is something that will show up in the platform at the convention. The history of many of these folks in the Republican Party is a stronger approach toward support for Taiwan – and there’s some of this in the Democratic Party – I characterize this myself as a sort of take Taiwan on its own basis rather than take Taiwan as a feature of your China policy. I think it’s fair to say that the current approach of the U.S. government, the Obama approach, is very similar to previous governments’ approaches most of the time where you don’t do things on Taiwan that could really upset Beijing, and you’re cognizant of that all the time. You don’t allow your dissatisfaction with Beijing in one area to spill over and change your Taiwan policy. So it leads to a steady moderate approach, very calculated, avoiding controversy with Beijing.

Changing gears now, the “status quo” in cross-strait relations is a concept that is open to interpretation. Thus far, Beijing doesn’t seem satisfied with Tsai Ing-wen’s proclamations that she intends to maintain the status quo because her definition of the status quo does not include acceptance, explicit acceptance, of the 1992 Consensus and the core connotation that Taiwan and Mainland China belong to one China. During your career you have had to explain the complexities of U.S.-Taiwan and cross-strait relations to numerous U.S. officials. What do you think is most important for U.S. officials to understand about this impasse over the 1992 Consensus? 

That’s a hard question. What’s most important about this?

I think we have to expect that it is going to be very difficult for this government in Taiwan and Beijing to have a stable relationship based on some sort of an understanding that they reach on this issue. I think it’s more likely that they won’t reach an understanding and that this will make the situation less certain and perhaps less stable, and we should be ready for that. Then our government needs to figure out, well, what is our position going to be.

One approach is to be a source of communication between the two, keep the communications going, keep the talks going between them so that they avoid action. Keep talking, don’t act.

But I think it’s going to be tense, politically tense. And then it could lead to punishments from Beijing, pressures. We already see signs of this: diplomatic pressures, economic pressures. You could have some military demonstrations of one sort or another. So we need to be prepared for that and figure out what is our position on this; and I think that will depend on what is done.

What I think: if Taiwan doesn’t do what Beijing wants – their risky thing is to not do what Beijing wants (whereas from the other perspective it will be what Beijing pressures) – then it will be Beijing pressures on Taiwan. If that escalates in various ways, then the U.S. will be called to respond in some way. Then the American government will have to figure out what to do. If it’s the current approach, the prevailing approach, I think the Americans will try to find a way to avoid big problems with China. And so that’s maybe the approach they take.

This is quite different than what the American government is saying now about the East China Sea and the South China Sea: the issue there is bullying and coercive intimidation. Well, this has been going on in the Taiwan Straits for 20 years, and yet we don’t do it there, we don’t object in a big way there. This is a disconnect that doesn’t get much attention, but it’s not consistent. We have to look carefully about this, and I think officials would have to look carefully about it. I think you come back to the situation: China is important to the United States and we don’t want to get big problems with China over Taiwan if we don’t have to.

You make an interesting point about bring up the East China Sea and the South China Sea because we see with the South China Sea the U.S. was proactive in a way and has tried to head off a future ADIZ over the South China Sea.

It seems that the guiding principle in U.S. Taiwan policy is caution. But do you think that there are any areas in U.S.-Taiwan relations where the next U.S. administration can be a little more proactive?

I think there are a number of areas underway which are in areas of cooperation with Taiwan. I forget what it’s called, but the administration has a new initiative. It was announced here at the Sigur Center. You can look it up on the website. It was about two or three months ago, and we had the deputy secretary of state and the deputy minister from Taiwan here announcing this initiative which is closer exchanges between the United States and Taiwan in a whole range of areas: economic, social, and things of that type. So that area is wide open, or it’s open at least, for progress. But I think at this time with the Tsai government and the uncertainty in cross-strait relations, I think the tendency will be to be very careful not to rock the boat, not to be seen rocking the boat, not to make the United States part of the problem, to stay away from that if you possibly can while encouraging both sides to be more flexible so that they can come to some modus vivendi that would avoid tension and difficulty in the Taiwan Straits.

Switching gears again, throughout your professional career both in the federal government and as an educator you have had many opportunities to speak with Americans about Taiwan and U.S.-Taiwan relations. Generally speaking, how would you assess Americans’ awareness and understanding of these two topics today, and how does it compare to past years?

I think that Americans’ understanding of Taiwan today is not very high. It’s never been that high. The whole idea that there is a Republic of China on Taiwan mystifies most Americans when they find out about it, and very few know about it.

The Taiwan issue is something that is really in the background most of the time and it’s been in the background under the Ma Ying-jeou government. It’s stayed in the background because it was stable and there wasn’t much news about it, and no one seemed to be complaining very much, so it seemed to be fine. But it can resurrect itself very easily because it has a long history and journalists are really good at recalling the history, lobbyists are really good about recalling the history, and it resonates with Congress. The Congress does pay attention to Taiwan and they do make visits there. The Taiwan government works hard to keep their relationships close with the Congress. And so, if things happen that look bad for Taiwan, this can get a lot of attention from the media. But I’d have to say that this is not an issue that people pay very much attention to, broadly speaking, in the United States. But because it’s related to China and China is a very salient foreign policy issue for Americans, it can come to the fore if there is a crisis or some issue emerges that gets a lot of attention.

Do you feel like that learning in the crisis situations causes a problem for the U.S., that people are rapidly gaining their historical knowledge under those circumstances?

Sure. It’s not optimal at all.

It doesn’t lead to considered policy if you’re not prepared. Now, of course, in the government people are very aware of this situation. They follow it very closely, and they’ll be the ones making the decisions. But the pressures they’ll receive from the public could be quite at odds with the decision that they feel they have to make, depending on circumstances.

Are there any aspects of U.S.-Taiwan relations that you find especially interesting today that perhaps you didn’t follow so closely before or weren’t even on your radar?

I’d have to say no.

I think the issues we’re dealing with – the concern of people in Taiwan to determine their own fate politically and the concern in Beijing that that not happen – this clash has been there ever since the democracy movement emerged in Taiwan and challenged the One-China Principle as practiced by Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo and so forth. So Lee Teng-hui was 20 years ago, as he moved in this direction this was emblematic of what half the people in Taiwan wanted. And so, Chen Shui-bian got elected. He won the election – he was a minority winner, but he won. And then he got reelected with a majority. So this has been developing for a long time and the tensions that it causes have been obvious.

Ma Ying-jeou and his administration was sort of a respite from that. He wanted to go in another direction and he did and it was very successful for easing tensions. It was very good for that, and the American government liked it. It seems the Chinese government like it. The American people didn’t have much to say about it – it was ok, certainly acceptable.

But now we have a government that’s moving again with this more self-determination for the people of Taiwan, but much more sensible than the previous DPP government, and cautious, and not desirous to rock the boat at all, and yet very strong inside Taiwan. They have great control now. They control the legislature. They control the executive branch. The DPP leadership has a lot of control now. They’re more confident about their domestic control, at least for now. So that situation it’s been evolving. It’s an evolving situation which, I think, is longstanding. And the issue is this difficulty between Taiwan and Beijing.

Finally, our readers would be interested in hearing about any projects that you recently completed or are currently working on.

The thing I’m working on now is on the U.S. policy debates on Asia. I’m working with the East-West Center and we’ll write a report and we’ll share it with various groups in Asia to get their reaction to the policy debates in this city.

A big part of the policy debates are the China policy debates. We didn’t want this to be a China policy debate report. We wanted it to be an Asia policy debate report because we feel that the China policy debate, when you do that, you ignore the rest of Asia. And I have I bias: I don’t think we should do that; I think we need to have a balanced approach and I like Mr. Obama’s rebalance policy because it considers U.S. interests in the rest of Asia which I think are very profound.

In the China debate, you do find a lot of discussion of a hardening, actually – a general hardening of attitudes – but it doesn’t spill over to Taiwan. Now the administration has hardened publicly on China, and yet it doesn’t spill over to Taiwan. So it sort of compartmentalizes. Taiwan in particular seems to be on a separate track. And most of the debate doesn’t include Taiwan. Occasionally, you find that those who want a tougher policy toward China will say we should use Taiwan as part of this policy, but not very much. John Bolton has said this; he’s published on this.

There is this broader underlying view that says we should take Taiwan on its own merits rather than be so beholden to the PRC. That view has been present for a long time in Washington, and I would assume that would get more traction if you are among those who are dissatisfied with American policy toward China and you want to toughen that policy. But, thus far, the Taiwan issue has not been prominent in this debate. And so, I’m marking that.

And the administration, I think, has continued as we’ve indicated, a policy where Taiwan is just handled in a very different way than other areas of policy like cyber, even human rights, but particularly South China Sea, East China Sea issues where they’ve gotten tougher on the Chinese, but not on Taiwan. There is no spill over. It’s almost like they just compartmentalized the policy, where there’s no linkage, no linkage between one and another issue. There’s no linkage that I can see. I guess this is by design.

Thank you very much for your time. We greatly appreciate it.

Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University beginning in 2011. He also serves as the school’s Director, Program of Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs.

A Ph.D. graduate in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University, Sutter taught full time for ten years at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and part-time for thirty years at Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins Universities, or the University of Virginia. He has published 20 books, over 200 articles and several hundred government reports dealing with contemporary East Asian and Pacific countries and their relations with the United States. His most recent book is Foreign Relations of the PRC: The Legacies and Constraints of China’s International Politics since 1949 (Rowman and Littlefield 2013).

Sutter’s government career (1968-2001) involved work on Asian and Pacific affairs and US foreign policy for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was for many years the Senior Specialist and Director of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service. He also was the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific at the US Government’s National Intelligence Council, and the China Division Director at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based researcher. He is the founder and executive editor of and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. Kristian earned his M.A. in international affairs from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and his B.A. in international relations from University of the Pacific’s School of International Studies. You can reach Kristian at [email protected].

This interview was first published on It is reprinted with kind permission.