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China-Taiwan Tensions Could Loom Over U.S. ‘Pivot’ to Asia: View

February 26, 2012

Should the U.S. be willing to sacrifice Los Angeles for Taipei? It’s horrendous to contemplate, but it’s the kind of question that underlies a simmering debate over U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

As China’s economic and military power grows, and Taiwan’s long-term future remains unclear, that debate deserves a wider airing. The tension, and the stakes, will only increase as the Obama administration undertakes its much-trumpeted “pivot” to Asia.

Taiwan didn’t surface as a big issue in Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Washington. The re- election of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, who has downplayed talk of independence and promoted ties with China, has also reduced cross-strait tensions. And the recent U.S. decision to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16s fighter planes rather than sell it newer ones provoked relatively mild heartburn in Beijing.

Nonetheless, the status quo that has prevailed since the U.S. recognition of China in 1979 -- a delicate balance that has supported not just China’s growth, but also the development of a vibrant, democratic Taiwan -- is under threat. China’s military edge over Taiwan is growing, as is the influence of its military on policy and the volatility of Chinese nationalist sentiment. Future U.S. sales to Taiwan of advanced weapons necessary to counter China’s advantage may trigger a harsher reaction. (Under the Taiwan Relations Act that Congress passed in 1979, the U.S. is required to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”) Meanwhile, as the economic and strategic importance of U.S.-China relations grows, so does the U.S. temptation to advance those ties at Taiwan’s expense.

Of course, in the best diplomatic tradition, the cross- strait status quo has always rested to some degree on evasions and half-truths. China and Taiwan agree that there is only “one China” -- just not which China that is. The U.S. maintains only unofficial relations with Taiwan, but that includes military exchanges and training, occasional Cabinet-level visitors and embassy surrogates. Taiwan is a plucky front-line state that seeks U.S. military help, yet it spends only 2.1 percent of its own gross domestic product on defense. The U.S., President George W. Bush said, will “do whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan -- a few months before he changed his tune, after the Sept. 11 attacks, to secure Chinese cooperation in the war on terrorism.

Recently, several former senior U.S. policy makers have recommended that the U.S. re-examine its support for Taiwan, in particular its arms sales. One of them, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, gingerly wrote in Foreign Affairs that “it is doubtful that Taiwan can indefinitely avoid a more formal connection with China.” Such arguments provoked a counter-chorus arguing that their proponents were guilty of seeking to abandon Taiwan.

The weight of history and the flow of current events support Brzezinski’s statement. Over the last decade, and especially since Ma took office, economic and social ties across the strait have deepened. The two sides have signed more than a dozen agreements, including an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010 that will further lower barriers to trade and investment. Already, 70,000 Taiwanese companies have invested more than $100 billion in the mainland, which is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. More than 1.4 million mainland tourists visited Taiwan in 2010, and direct flights now top 500 a week.

The challenge is ensuring that the growth of such numbers trumps the growth of others, like the number of Chinese missiles (now more than 1,200) aimed at Taiwan. On the U.S. side, the answer is not legislation now before Congress that stipulates flying the U.S. flag outside the office of the “American Institute” in Taipei and Senate confirmation of its director. Nor does the solution lie in lawmakers mandating the sales of specific aircraft types -- impulses driven partly by commercial considerations of the members of Congress with military contractors in their districts and states. Taiwan may not be willing to meet its own defense spending targets, but it knows that its status as the fourth-largest purchaser of U.S. arms can buy it congressional clout.

In addition to sticking by the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. can advance its principles by making headway on some mutually beneficial measures. It should speed the review of Taiwan’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, which will enable Taiwanese business travelers and tourists to enter the U.S. without a visa. Proposed in 2010, an extradition treaty that would help both countries fight crime needs to move out of limbo. It would also be beneficial to jumpstart talks on a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, which has been held up by Taiwan’s refusal to lift a ban on U.S. beef imports as unsafe. We urge Taiwan’s legislature to follow the science and stop using the issue as a partisan cudgel.

The most important step the U.S. could take, however, would be to reconsider its hands-off attitude toward resolving cross- strait tensions. This no-mediation principle is enshrined in the catechism of U.S. China policy -- the so-called “Six Assurances” that President Ronald Reagan offered to Taipei in 1982. But it essentially leaves the U.S. hostage to Chinese and Taiwanese behavior, whether a dangerous Chinese buildup of forces, a future move toward independence by Taiwan, or even a blithe assumption on the part of the Taiwanese that the status quo can continue indefinitely. In the past, the U.S. has declared its support for confidence-building measures between the militaries of Taiwan and China. Why stop there? The U.S. could suggest a framework for the militaries to pursue -- things like operational military hotlines and maritime safety protocols, perhaps facilitated by Singapore, which has used such measures to ease tensions with its neighbors.

If the U.S. truly intends to be back in Asia, it should do more to encourage China and Taiwan to defuse one of the Cold War’s last remaining flashpoints. For all parties in the region, the best resolution would be a Northeast Asia where the safety, prosperity and freedom of Taiwan’s people do not have to be guaranteed by our own.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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