On February 11, Taiwan marked a milestone in its relations with China. The head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council held direct talks with his counterpart in China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. Such government-to-government talks have not occurred since the Chinese Civil War split the two sides sixty-five years ago. Although the direct talks accomplished far less than the quasi-official meetings that China and Taiwan already held to improve trade and travel between them, the talks were an important step in Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to warm ties with mainland China. Certainly his efforts have calmed tensions across the Taiwan Strait, which reached a peak during his predecessor’s term as president. But lest there be too much optimism, a gulf (not only of water) remains between the two sides.
For the moment, Taiwan’s political leaders are focused on the regional elections that lay ahead this year and, perhaps for Ma, the legacy that he will leave behind. Both of the major political parties on Taiwan have recently taken a second look at its bridge building with China. Under Ma, the Kuomintang (KMT) has taken the initiative to build those bridges in order to boost Taiwan’s flagging economy. But many within the KMT’s rank-and-file remain wary of further movement that could lead to Beijing’s rule over Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which once unabashedly advocated for independence from China, is now increasingly split between those who still want independence and those who want to open talks with China, if that is the direction their island nation is to go. And so, as Taiwan’s political leaders position themselves for electoral success later this year, they are also implicitly crafting their parties’ policy narratives for Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections.
Yet for all the discussion within Taiwan about how to approach China, few seem concerned about how the United States would react. That is remarkable because the United States is the island nation’s security guarantor from Chinese attack. Can one attribute Taiwan’s lack of attention on the United States to its confidence that America’s security guarantee is beyond question? Or can one attribute Taiwan’s attitude to the growing perception in Asia that despite the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” toward the region that American military might and political will to guarantee Asian stability no longer seems quite assured, at least relative to China’s rise. Such a perception has already motivated countries, like Japan and the Philippines, to seek reassurances from Washington of its continued commitments to them.
And so, perhaps Taiwan’s political leaders, anticipating a gradual weakening of American resolve to defend their island nation, have chosen to deepen their ties with China, while they can still negotiate with some measure of strength. But whether they want to admit it or not, their behavior also influences American determination to maintain Taiwan’s freedom from China. On the other hand, they cannot wait for the United States to come to a consensus regarding Taiwan. In Secretary of State John Kerry’s most recent visit to China, North Korea and the East China Sea were the top issues of discussion; it is unclear whether Taiwan even reached the agenda.
Indeed, it is an open question whether the United States has a clear policy on Taiwan. Two camps have emerged in Washington: one wants to ensure a Taiwan free from Chinese rule and the other sees Taiwan as a nuisance in the great power relations between China and the United States that are already complex and fraught with other dangers. Partly out of necessity, the latter camp seemed to have gained the upper hand after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Washington needed calm across the Taiwan Strait as it fought two conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But putting Taiwan on the backburner has made the island’s absorption into China more likely, in which case the most practical American policy would be to help Taiwan obtain the best possible terms for its absorption. The former camp, probably sensing America’s drift away from Taiwan, has become more vocal. It urges that American policy take a firmer line on Taiwan—enhancing the island’s defenses and building stronger political bonds with it. Some within that camp simply abhor the notion that China will snuff out Taiwan’s democracy; others point to Taiwan’s value to the United States, citing the island’s geographical significance to the balance of power in the western Pacific.
Whichever policy direction the United States chooses, it would be wise to start engaging Taiwan’s political leaders now. Waiting until Taiwan turns its attention to the United States may be too late. By 2016 when Taiwan’s presidential election cycle is in full swing, the island’s political parties are likely to have hardened their respective positions, making American influence less effective. Now is the time to begin its engagement. But that is if Washington can manage to decide which policy it should pursue.