In an article entitled “China and US on Edge over Vote in Taiwan,” today’s Financial Times (FT) quotes a “senior US official” as saying Taiwan DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen “left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”
The article goes on to quote the official as saying that it was “far from clear…that she and her advisers fully appreciate the depth of (Chinese) mistrust of her motives and DPP aspirations.” According to the FT, the official made the comments after meeting the candidate in Washington this week.
Presumably—and judging by many previous statements from not just this Administration but prior ones—the U.S. rightly favors “stability” in the Taiwan Strait. However, to declare Tsai a danger to stability is wrong on several scores.
One, it is clearly taking the side of her opponent in the upcoming January election. The KMT, party of incumbent President of the Republic of China Ma Ying-jeou, makes the same criticism of her, and like night follows day, it immediately seized on the comments from the Obama Administration.
There is a very high premium in Taiwan politics on maintaining the confidence of the country that is essentially the guarantor of its security—the United States of America. The last DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, lost that confidence, and the loss was a contributing factor to the KMT’s victory in 2008.
Two, Tsai Ing-wen is far from a radical advocate of Taiwan independence. If anything the criticism from within her party is that she is not strong enough in her advocacy of the party’s central plank, certainly nothing like President Chen and the real DPP firebrands.
In the current presidential campaign, Tsai has assiduously sought (successfully perhaps because of her nature) to project reasonableness and responsibility. To the extent that she embodies the DPP spirit on cross-Straits issues, she is reflecting an extraordinary polarization in Taiwan’s politics over the very nature of its national identity: whether the island is part of one China separated by history and incompatible political systems or Taiwanese, culturally Chinese, but destined to live forever politically separate from the mainland.
Three, the White House comments reflect an all-too-well-trained instinct for carrying China’s water on cross-Straits issues. It is the PRC that is dictating the terms of the “stability” the U.S. is concerned with maintaining. It is the PRC that declares any deviation from the trend in the direction of unification “destabilizing” and threatens to resort to force to preclude any movement counter to this trend—as it alone perceives it. And judging by the White House response to its encounter with Tsai this week, the PRC’s perception is the only one it cares about.
There is another problem with the White House comments: Tsai Ing-wen may still, despite this blow, be elected president of Taiwan next year.
Taiwan needs the U.S. A President Tsai would have no option of distancing Taiwan from America. But without trust in the U.S., which has also suffered a blow from this calculated public assessment of Tsai, the relationship can easily descend into a cycle of manipulation and retribution that serves no one’s interest. After all, where does a political figure like Tsai go when her efforts to be reasonable and responsible have been rebuffed?
The concern for “stability” is a legitimate concern in any situation where America may be called in to restore balance by force. But to tar one side of these elections in Taiwan as uniquely damaging to American interests when the only evidence to that effect are self-interested complaints from China is wrong and extremely shortsighted.