Early in December the pro-unification parties of Taiwan celebrated landslides in three major mayoral races. In the past, when such results were announced Washington observers would comment on how the results affected cross-strait and US-China-Taiwan relations in light of US policy and diplomatic practices. This time there have been few comments from Washington. Some ascribe the lack of commentary to the fact that they were only local races that do not significantly impact cross-strait relations. But, less than two weeks before the election, President Bush admired Taiwan’s democracy while he was in Beijing. Also, the State Department commented on the outcome of the election right after it concluded and pointed out that the US understands the democracy of Taiwan through its elections. It is inconceivable that the outcome of these elections wouldn’t elicit any policy remarks. Some in Washington have begun to use the term Taiwan passing to express the view that Taiwan is being sidelined.
The term Taiwan passing, of course, does not mean that the US has begun to ignore Taiwan in its Asia-Pacific strategy, as Secretary of State Dean Acheson did when he declared in 1950 that the US would no longer see Taiwan as one of its key strategic interests in the west Pacific region. Sidelining Taiwan is not necessarily a bad thing because if Taiwan were to become the core of the US-China clash, it would come under many constraints. Many internal issues that should be dealt with via Taiwan’s democratic processes would get classified as cross-strait matters. The Taiwan passing concept is similar to the Japan passing concept, which emerged in US Asia-Pacific policy circles toward the end of 1990s. In the summer 2000 issue of The National Interest, Michael Green, now senior Asia-Pacific director of the US National Security Council, made a number of interesting comments in his article “Japan: The Forgotten Player.” The emergence of the Taiwan passing idea has to do with Taiwan’s inner democratic paralysis, US adoption of an adjustment policy against China, and the reshuffling of US Asia-Pacific policy staff. In the last two or three months, US policy groups have begun to reveal a new message. The US will no longer judge Taiwan’s determination to defend itself by whether it passes the special military procurement budget. This doesn’t mean the US believes Taiwan no longer needs the items the US can provide. Rather, it reflects US frustration with Taiwan’s policy paralysis caused by the domestic political struggles of recent years.
Changes in the Asia-Pacific situation require that the US quickly adjust its strategic deployment in the region. As the US is not sure whether Taiwan’s arms procurement budget will be sanctioned, the US has to settle for other indicators to evaluate Taiwan’s defense developments and to determine its corresponding strategic measures. Taiwan’s policy paralysis has gradually caused the US to lose faith in Taiwan’s security defense policy and management. In essence, it will not count on the arms deal any more. It is no longer a question of whether or not Taiwan is going to purchase the weapons; the arms procurement issue has hurt US-Taiwan relations in an irreparable way. The main damage to US-Taiwan relations inflicted by the failed arms deal is that Taiwan has made itself an untrustworthy partner. This is different from the tension between the US and Taiwan in 2003 over the referendum.
When it did not see eye to eye with Taiwan on referendum issues, the US used the word “unpredictable” to describe Taiwan due to its concern over the possible impact of Taiwan’s actions on US-China-Taiwan relations. But, now the word is “unreliable”, and it refers to Taiwan’s democratic paralysis, which has resulted in suspension of its national security and foreign policies. At stake is the US-Taiwan relation itself. The cost of being an unreliable partner in US-Taiwan relations is that Taiwan gradually becomes irrelevant to the US decision-making process. It is not that the US does not take Taiwan seriously, but that Taiwan’s democratic paralysis makes it impossible for the US to tell what Taiwan will do. When it is seen as an uncontrollable factor, Taiwan is precluded from the policy-making process. The arms deal issue is no longer a price disagreement. The political discord behind it has started something that may eventually bring a disastrous outcome for all of us in Taiwan.
The Adjustment Strategy of the US against China
Since early 2005, the China policy of the US has been adjustment-oriented. In his September 21 speech, Undersecretary of State Robert Zoellick expressed the expectation that China would become a responsible stakeholder. The picture he painted put an end to the containment versus engagement debate pertaining to the China policy of the US in the 1990s. Before China became a formidable power, the US could keep China in check via containment or change its behavior via engagement. But now China has grown to the degree that neither will work. As the US and China become more dependent on each other, the US has had to adjust its mentality toward China as well as voice its expectations for China. In this way it can put possible future disagreements between the US and China in perspective. In practice, the adjustment policy against China is akin to the reconciliation policy proposed by Kissinger in 1969 in which the domains of the US and the Soviet Union were demarcated to manage the international system of the time. Currently, the China policy of the US has not reached the level of an international co-management system because the strategic strength of China is still far behind that of the US. But the issues now covered by the US-China dialogue are no longer China’s domestic matters such as human rights, Tibet, or religious freedoms, but global concerns such as arms control, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, North Korea, Iran, and energy.
Diversified issues mean not only more room for US-China cooperation, but also more ignition points for US-China disputes. In the past, the economy was the superglue that helped patch up US-China differences. Yet as China’s economic power surges and the US-China trade bond intensifies, economic issues have now become a major source of tension between the two nations. Taiwan is still the center of US-China disputes. But its weight has been gradually watered down by other important issues.
From this perspective, the disappearance of Taiwan issues from the radar screen of US-China disputes is not a bad thing. Yet as development of US-China relations reaches the stage where the two begin to discuss global strategic issues, Taiwan’s pull with the US greatly wanes. This places Taiwan in a very disadvantageous position in US-China-Taiwan relations. Without a solid US-Taiwan bond at the foundation, it is impossible for Taiwan to make any progress in its relations with China. Unless Taiwan can engage in global strategic conversation with the US, Taiwan will be quickly sidelined because it has been relegated to a mere aspect of US-China-Taiwan relations. In order for Taiwan to become a concerned link in global strategic issues such as anti-terrorism, nonproliferation, Asia-Pacific regional security, and unconventional security, it first needs to improve its ability to carry out democratic rule. Taiwan needs to deal with its administrative paralysis resulting from political struggles. Following President Bush’s successful reelection, turnover in Asia-Pacific policy staff has raised new concerns.
When Randall Schriver, deputy assistant secretary of state for Asia-Pacific affairs, who oversaw matters concerning Taiwan and China, departed his position, it was never filled. Michael Green, senior Asia-Pacific director of the US National Security Council, is getting ready to leave his post on December 20, and, so far, outsiders know nothing about possible successors. Since Steven Yates moved on, the Asia security director of the Office of the Vice President has remained open. Even though nominally the vice president does not involve himself directly in Asia-Pacific security affairs, Vice President Cheney has played a crucial role in Washington’s foreign policy.
The potential impact of his Asia security director, therefore, can never be underestimated. Yet these positions have been left unoccupied. After the exit of Michael Green there were no Japan affairs experts among the senior officials in charge of Asia-Pacific policy. The Asia-Pacific experience of Christopher Hill, deputy secretary of state for Asia-Pacific affairs, came mainly from the nine months he served as ambassador to South Korea. It appears that his current assignment is for the purpose of managing the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear issues. At present, the Asia-Pacific policy of Undersecretary of State Robert Zoellick seems to center on China. In addition, word has been going around in Washington that Zoellick dislikes Japan because of his past experience with US-Japan trade issues, and that after assuming his current post he lowered the undersecretary-level strategic talks between the US and Japan established by his predecessor Richard Armitage to the deputy secretary level. Rumor has it that in the past, Japanese ambassador Kato Ryozo was able to reach Armitage any time he needed to, and that there were numerous face-to-face meetings between the two. After Zoellick was sworn in the communication was cut off. Whether or not these rumors are an exaggeration, changes in US Asia-Pacific personnel show that the Americans are leaving Japan for China. There were two fruitful two-plus-two meetings between the US and Japan in February and October this year.
But, they were made possible through communication between the US Defense Department and Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and its Defense Ministry based on effective US-Japan strategic talks of the past. There is a question of how much longer saved-up favors will last. The Bush Administration has been friendly toward Taiwan because its Asia-Pacific policy was in the hands of the Japan-familiar “pan-Asia faction.” That this group is gradually fading out of the Asia-Pacific policy circle will definitely affect the way Washington considers its Taiwan policy. In US-China relations, Taiwan has been regarded as a problem. Yet from the perspective of the US-Japan alliance, Taiwan is an important asset.
In the past, efforts to prevent Taiwan from being sidelined and to enhance its strategic value had to do with policy discussions over the so-called US-Japan-Taiwan strategic triangle. Japan and the US have worked closely with each other on issues pertinent to the East Asian summit and the EU’s continued arms embargo against China, giving Taiwan a way to counteract China’s strategic blockade in the Asia-Pacific region.
As the Japan-familiar pan-Asia faction leaves the scene and China experts from the State Department and academia begin to take over US Asia-Pacific policy, Taiwan may be brought back to the disadvantageous US-China-Taiwan framework. This development puts Taiwan and Japan in the same shoes in their diplomatic dealings with the US. In the last two or three months, Washington has begun to discuss the “Japan Issue”.
That is, just as Taiwan is deemed a problem in US-China relations, Japan has now become a problem in US-China relations. The US must deal with Japan properly in order to prevent difficulties in its Asia-Pacific maneuvers. In his meeting with President Bush, Hu Jintao brought up Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. Almost in unison, China experts in the US also began to bombard Japan from different angles.
Japan came under fire for almost the same reasons for which Taiwan has been called a trouble-maker. In the past, it was Taiwan’s democratization and growing national identification that stirred up China; now it is Japan’s normalization that hurts Chinese people’s feelings.
Both affect US-China relations and US operations in the Asia-Pacific region. Does China believe that the Taiwan Strait situation is no longer difficult because Taiwan’s internal political struggles have turned Taiwan into a manageable and controllable factor while Japan has become the issue that requires immediate attention? For Taiwan, the pacified Taiwan Strait situation has led to division and paralyzed democratic rule preventing Taiwan from any meaningful action. It appears that the tension in the Taiwan Strait has calmed down. This phenomenon has turned Taiwan’s strategic value to the US from “unreliable” to “irrelevant” and opened the door for Beijing to further chip away the bond between Japan, the US, and Taiwan. From this perspective, the problem implicated in label Taiwan passing may be more distressful than the tension between the US and Taiwan two years ago.