Taiwan’s strategic confusion

Author: Wen-Ti Sung, ANU

Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s mantra of ‘no unification, no independence, and no use of force’ is coming under increasing strain.

Taiwan US Trade

This pressure is due to a number of factors — Washington’s benign neglect of Taiwan, Beijing’s ever-stronger leverage over Taipei, and Taiwan’s own strategic confusion.

In its second term, the Obama administration appears to be abandoning its ‘pivot to Asia’ to focus more on the US homeland. In February, President Obama neglected foreign policy in his State of the Union address. And the departure 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 — has taken away much of the impetus for the pivot. Replacing Clinton is the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has expressed significant reservations about the pivot. He is concerned that it might provoke an unnecessary reaction from China, and contribute to US–China tensions.

At the same time, the US domestic policy debate about China has seen the rise of an ‘accommodationist’ school that advocates acknowledgement and appeasement of China’s claim over Taiwan. This is manifested in two ways. First, the US defence establishment has come to the realisation that America’s conventional assets are no longer sufficient to help Taiwan defend itself against Chinese aggression. Second, a debate is being waged over the wisdom of a ‘Finlandisation’ 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 will be sufficient to shift Beijing’s strategic orientation from revisionism to pro-status quo on other important issues.

Meanwhile, President Ma Ying-jeou’s 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 coming elections as a reason to delay. The new chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, Wang Yu-chi, recently committed to submit proposed legislation that would authorise the establishment of semi-official representative offices in China and China’s counterpart in Taiwan. If this goes ahead, it will help shift the economic effect of cross-strait integration into the political realm as well. At this crucial time, the Ma administration is running the risk of prioritising cross-strait relations to the neglect of its American ties.

But when asked to review Taiwan’s strategic orientation in a recent interview, King Pu-tsung, Taiwan’s representative to the United States, commented: ‘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 that we have. It is the best shield we have’. King also indicated that Taiwan intends to buy American F-22s, F-35s and submarines, ‘even just for their symbolic value’ — because they signify a tacit American security commitment to Taiwan in the absence of formal security assurances.

Herein lies the contradiction of Taiwan’s strategic orientation. Taipei is effectively telling Washington that it intends to secure an American security commitment to come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of Chinese aggression. But, at the same time, Taipei is not willing to reciprocate by committing itself to the US side in the emerging Sino–American geostrategic rivalry.

It may be strategically sound for a small state caught between two superpowers to take some form of under-the-table, opportunistic approach. But openly describing the US–Taiwan relationship in mostly transactional terms will likely hurt Taiwan’s public diplomacy in the United States. These developments suggest strategic confusion and torpor in Taipei.

In short, there are noticeable shifts in the strategic superstructure of US–PRC–Taiwan relations. The economic infrastructure of cross-strait relations is tilting in Beijing’s favour. The United States is set to look away and has been developing a political rationale for accommodating Chinese ambitions over Taiwan. China is using its asymmetric economic interdependency with Taiwan to entice Taipei into institutionalising 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 for a number of reasons. Taiwanese independence is becoming expensive. Cross-strait union is becoming more acceptable in Washington. And the collective military deterrent necessary to prevent Beijing from use of force is becoming less credible, in part due to Taipei’s own strategic ambiguity. As the Ma administration enters into its sixth year, it is high time that President Ma formulates a clearer strategy for engaging Washington and Beijing. In this way, he will honour his pledge to preserve Taiwan’s future freedom of action.

Wen-Ti Sung is a PhD candidate at the School of International, Political, and Strategic Studies, the Australian National University.

An earlier version of this article appeared here on the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute website.

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  • It appears to be the case that as China gets stronger economically and militarily, the best future freedom of Taiwan is a federational style unification with China, with a new federal constitution to safeguard the freedom of Taiwan as long as it remains a part of the Greater Chinese federation.
    The safeguard should go to more than that applied to Hong Kong and probably should allow the one country and two systems remain as long as the either side chooses to, and the internal security of Taiwan should remain its own and mainland troops won’t entre into Taiwan for a long period such as 100 years or more. The mainland won’t interfere the internal political governance of Taiwan as long as it maintains the new federal constitution.
    Both sides should adopt a practical approach to the relations.

  • The confusion resides more on author’s comprehension between strategic ambiguity and “strategic confusion”. Ambiguity is a chosen, not confused, approach. Taiwan has no monopoly over strategic ambiguity.

  • Katharine Chang

    On the article ‘Taiwan’s Strategic Confusion by Wen-Ti Sung of April 4, 2013, I do not agree with the arguments and would like to point out the following:

    1. Taiwan’s policy towards Mainland and the US is clear, firm and fruitful. There is no confusion.

    2. Since his first day in office, President Ma took the initiative to improve relations with Mainland. The policy is to maintain the status quo of ‘no unification, no independence and no use of force’, and promote peace and stability in the region. This crystal –clear policy has proved to be successful. 18 agreements and 2 consensuses have been reached. Each week, there are 616 flights between Taiwan and the Mainland. Over 7 million visitors from mainland China has been to Taiwan so far. Taiwan is now praised as a peacemaker, not a troublemaker. In the future, Taiwan will continue to expand interactions with the mainland on the basis of the 1992 consensus, whereby each side acknowledges the existence of ‘one China’, but maintains its own interpretation of what that means.

    3. Cross-Strait relations are in the best shape in decades and Taiwan has successfully controlled the content and pace of negotiations. Beijing is eager to move past economic agreements and begin discussions of political questions, but Taipei has refused. Cross-Strait discussions have been guided by Ma’s principles of beginning with easy issues and gradually progressing to harder ones, tackling economic problems before discussing more sensitive political and military differences.

    4. With the progress in Cross-Strait relations, over the past four-plus years, Taiwan-US relations have improved considerably, reaching a high in more than 30 years. In November 2012, the US granted Taiwan nationals visa waiver status, making Taiwan the only country among 37 on the list that does not have diplomatic relations with the US. In the past 2 years, a number of senior officials and heavyweight Congressional delegations have made visits to Taiwan, including administrator Rajiv Shah of the US Agency for International Development and Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel B. Poneman. Furthermore, Deputy US Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis led a delegation to Taiwan in March 2013 to hold negotiations associated with the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). The US continued to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons, with the quality and amount exceeding all previous sales. The arms sale enhances Taiwan’s confidence and willingness to pursue stable and solid development of the cross-strait relationship.

    5. Sung’s argument that ‘The US is set to look away and has been developing a political rationale for accommodating Chinese ambitions over Taiwan’ seems misleading. Former Secretary Hillary Clinton stated on Nov. 10, 2011 that Taiwan is an important security and economic partner of the US. In January, 2013, Secretary John Kerry stated in his written answer to Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) that ‘I will continue to support U.S. policy to meet our commitment to Taiwan and assist Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capability. Doing so increases stability both across the Taiwan Straits and within the region’.

    Obama would incur serious costs should they seek to fix US-Mainland China relations by walking away from Taiwan, as pointed out by Nancy Tucker of Georgetown Univ. and Bonnie Glaser of CSIS.

    Walking away from Taiwan would be alarming to Japan, South Korea and ASEAN nations. They would think the US is not to be trusted. Mainland China would conclude that a weaker US lacking vision and ambition could be pressured and manipulated.

    Katharine Chang
    Taipei Economic and Cultural Office