By Wen-Ti Sung.

President Ma Ying-jeou’s mantra of ‘no unification, no independence, and no use of force’ is coming under increasing strain in an era of benign neglect from Washington, Beijing’s ever stronger economic leverage, and Taiwan’s own strategic confusion.

President Ma’s comfortable re-election in 2012 has led to heightened interest about whether he will further accelerate cross-Strait integration with China beyond the realm of economics. Beijing can be expected to pressure Ma to engage in serious talks for greater cross-Strait political linkages, especially now that Ma can no longer cite concerns about facing re-election further down the road. Meanwhile, there are early signs of wavering American support for Taiwan’s defense and de facto independence, which do not seem to be raising alarm bells in Taipei.

In February, the U.S. President dedicated only 10 out of the total 65 minutes in his annual State of the Union address to foreign policy. This indicates that, much more than a pivot to Asia, the Obama administration’s second term agenda is a pivot back to the U.S. homeland. The departures of the leading architects of the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ – including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell – have taken away much of the impetus for the still nascent pivot. Replacing Clinton is the new Secretary of State John Kerry. During his confirmation hearing in January, Kerry expressed significant reservations about the pivot. Instead, he was more concerned that it might induce unnecessary reaction from, and tension with, China. Moreover, as a further sign of his different strategic priorities, Kerry, a fluent French speaker, chose Europe and the Middle East as the destinations of his first overseas travel as Secretary of State, unlike his predecessor who toured Asia.

Meanwhile, the U.S. domestic policy debate about China has seen the rise of an “Accommodationist School” that advocates acknowledgement and appeasement of China’s claim over Taiwan.[1] This is manifest in two ways. First, in terms of America’s capability, the U.S. defense establishment has come to the realization that America’s conventional assets are no longer sufficient to help Taiwan defend itself against potential Chinese aggression. Second, in terms of America’s will, a debate is being waged over the wisdom of a ‘Finlandization’ of Taiwan. The proponents of this formula argue that America should concede Taiwan to China’s sphere of influence, in the hope that appeasement over this issue would be sufficient to shift Beijing’s strategic orientation from revisionism to pro status quo on other important issues.[2]

However, at a time when American attention is ever more absent and the need to cultivate American support all the more pressing, Taiwan seems to be trapped in a comfortable yet comatose state of strategic auto-piloting. While Ma’s slogan of cross-Strait ‘diplomatic truce’ (waijiao xiubing) has ushered in stability and mild progress in Taiwan’s international engagement, it has also deprived its diplomatic corps of an overarching purpose for their work.

The Ma administration, for its part, seems to run the risk of prioritizing cross-Strait relations to the neglect of its American ties. The new Chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, Wang Yu-chi, has recently committed to submit proposed legislation that would authorize the establishment of semi-official representative offices in China and of China’s counterpart in Taiwan. If this materializes, it would represent a symbolic step in the spill-over of cross-Strait integration from the economic to the political realm.

Meanwhile Taiwan’s Representative to the United States, King Pu-tsung, made a profound announcement during an interview with Agence France-Presse in February. When asked to review Taiwan’s strategic orientation, King stated: “We have our own pragmatic approach to survive. . . . [In terms of juggling relations between the U.S. and Mainland China] It is a very strategic ambiguity [author’s emphasis] that we have. It is the best shield we have.” In the same interview, King also indicated that Taiwan nonetheless still intends to buy American F-22s, F-35s, and submarines, “even just for their symbolic value”, because they signify tacit American security commitment to Taiwan in the absence of formal security assurances.

Herein lies the contradiction: If King’s statements are an accurate representation of the Ma administration’s position, then Taipei is effectively telling Washington that it intends to secure an American security commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of Chinese aggression, but Taipei is not willing to reciprocate by committing itself to the U.S. side in the emerging Sino-American geostrategic rivalry. In other words, Taiwan will pay ‘protection money’ to the U.S. (in the form of arms purchases) as a kind of bribe for a U.S. security commitment, but that will not incur a moral obligation for reciprocal Taiwanese commitment in return.

It may be true that some form of under-the-table, opportunistic bandwagoning approach is only strategically sound for a small state caught between two superpowers. But elevating it to an almost declaratory policy status and describing the U.S.-Taiwan relationship in mostly transactional terms would likely hurt Taiwan’s public diplomacy in appealing to the the American people. What these developments suggest is a degree of strategic confusion and torpor in Taipei.

In short, there are noticeable shifts in the strategic superstructure of U.S.-PRC-Taiwan relations, while the economic infrastructure of cross-strait relations is tilting decidedly in Beijing’s favour. The U.S. is set to look away and has been developing a political rationale for accommodating Chinese ambition over Taiwan, and Beijing is leveraging its asymmetric economic interdependency with Taipei to entice it into institutionalizing greater political linkages.

President Ma’s ‘no unification, no independence, and no use of force’ formula was meant to freeze the cross-Strait status quo, but it is becoming harder to sustain – as independence becomes exorbitantly costly, as cross-Strait union becomes ever more acceptable in Washington, and as the collective military deterrent necessary to prevent Beijing from use of force becomes ever less credible, in part due to Taipei’s own professed strategic ambiguity. As the Ma administration approaches its sixth year, it is high time that President Ma hit the ‘reset button’ and formulate a clearer strategy for engaging Washington and Beijing, in order to cement a legacy as a leader who pledged to preserve Taiwan’s future freedom of action.

Wen-Ti Sung is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the Australian National University.

[1] See Nancy Bernkopf Tucker and Bonnie Glaser, 2011, ‘Should the United States Abandon Taiwan?’ The Washington Quarterly 34(4): p.23-37 and David M. Lampton, 2005, ‘Paradigm Lost: The Demise of ‘”Weak China”’. The National Interest 81: p.73-80.

[2] See Bruce Gilley, 20010, ‘Not So Dire Straits: How the Finlandization of Taiwan Benefits U.S. Security’, Foreign Affairs 89(1): 44-60, and Charles Glaser, 2011, ‘Will China’s Rise Lead to War? Why Realism Does Not Mean Pessimism’, Foreign Affairs 90(2): 80-91.


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