US election sets poser for Taiwan

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI – In its recently publicized official foreign-policy platform, the US Republican Party, which fields former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate, mentions at length Taiwan, traditionally by far the most prominent pawn in the US-China relationship, while the Democrats trying to secure President Barack Obama’s second term handle the island much like an afterthought.

But although at first glance it seems a future Republican administration would take a more confrontational attitude toward Beijing, offering more bargaining chips to Taipei in cross-strait horse-trading, neither of Taiwan’s two main political parties is necessarily keeping its fingers crossed for Romney.

At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week the party published its foreign-policy platform, which in the last paragraph of the chapter on the Asia-Pacific region resorts to the Obama administration’s usual phraseology when it comes to Taiwan. In the whole document, the word “Taiwan” is mentioned only twice: “We remain committed to a ‘one China’ policy, the Taiwan Relations Act and the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues that is consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”

In the Republican platform, which was published earlier to boost Romney’s chances, the island is mentioned nine times, by contrast, if the term “Taiwanese” is also counted. As well, the tone aimed at Beijing made very clear on which side the party stands. Strong wording was used such as “America and Taiwan are united”, “a loyal friend of America” and “the US … will help Taiwan defend itself”.

To make matters still more punchy, an aide of Romney in an interview with Taiwan’s staunchly pro-independence daily The Liberty Times later made it clear that if his man wins, the new F-16 fighter jets Taipei has been requesting for years but are being held back by the Obama administration will be released. A source from within the US defense industry has even told Asia Times Online that “a US president Romney would sell Taipei almost any weapon system it would ask for”.

To all appearances, such an outcome would make Taipei a head taller when confronting Beijing at the negotiation table. In other words, Beijing would have to dig much deeper into its pockets to make the Taiwanese accept talks on forming a political union.

Nonetheless, experts differ on who would be a better US president for Taiwan.

“It is tempting for some in Taiwan to think that a Romney presidency would take a more robust position toward Beijing and would therefore benefit Taiwan. It may do so. Or, it may not,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute in England. He emphasized that many US presidential candidates of the past few decades used strong rhetoric toward Beijing and changed their policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after taking office.

Tsang obviously had in mind Ronald Reagan, who in his 1980 presidential campaign strongly argued for the sale of XF fighter jets to Taipei and furthermore wanted to give Taiwanese diplomats official access to the US government, but after his election not only failed to deliver on either pledge but in 1982 even signed the infamous “August 17 communique”, in which he promised Deng Xiaoping gradually to decrease the sale of arms to Taiwan.

“Is there really any powerful reason to think Romney would be different?” Tsang asked rhetorically. “The relationship between the USA and the PRC is such an important one that there is not that much room for maneuver.”

But John Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, clearly sees advantages for Taiwan if Romney replaces Obama.

“The Republicans and Romney specifically advocate a stronger US military; Taiwan’s sovereignty hinges on the US [policy] to defend and protect Taiwan,” he said. “The Democrats and President Obama have been less supportive of the US military and a strong defense.”

Copper elaborated that the “Asia pivot” that has recently become the Obama administration’s policy is hollow at present, and that putting 2,500 marines in Australia was meaningless in dealing with China’s rise.

Also, according to Copper, Democrats and Obama identify more with Europe than Asia, seeing the latter as conservative and capitalist and more like Republicans. “Taiwan fits this mold,” he said.

It is hardly a secret that the Obama administration went to great lengths to secure the re-election of Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) so as not to complicate Sino-US relations in Taiwan’s last presidential and legislative elections in January. According to numerous commentators, Washington endorsed Ma in a timely manner via a sudden spike in visits by high-ranking US officials to Taipei and the island’s listing as a candidate for the United States’ visa-waiver program, among other measures.

Not surprisingly, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has felt wronged, which became plainly obvious when, after the polls were over, its candidate Tsai Ing-wen refused to meet with US officials visiting Taiwan. It was widely alleged that the DPP sought to get even with Obama by its vociferous opposition to Ma’s plan to open Taiwan to the import of US beef laced with the lean-meat enhancer ractopamine, and there has been no sign since that the DPP and the Obama administration have gotten on better terms.

But according to Copper, the desire for revenge will not go so far that the DPP prays for a Romney win.

“The pro-DPP friends I have spoken to know that the Obama administration supported Ma and the KMT in the last election, but they do not say much about this,” he said. “They identify with Obama as a liberal who favors the same things the DPP stands for: helping the poor, economic equality, socialist policies, and so forth.”

According to Tsang, when pondering on who might be best for Taiwan, it is important to take into consideration that the old patterns of thought in cross-strait relations no longer apply, as Taiwan’s game is no longer one of confronting Beijing.

“The old paradigm of independence versus unification has passed its sell-by date.”

The real game now, he said, whether Taiwan is governed by a KMT or a DPP administration, is how to maintain a good working relationship with Beijing so that both sides benefit from the economic complementarities without the dignity of Taiwan and its citizens being unduly compromised.

“To succeed in this new game, Taiwan does not need the US to have an administration articulating a willingness to confront Beijing,” Tsang said. “What Taiwan needs is a US administration that is willing to consider what Taiwan really needs for its security and be willing to stand by Taiwan as required.”

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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