Is U.S. Policy toward
Taiwan Really Changing?
By Li Huaqiu
Translated By Peixin Lin
22 April 2011
Edited by Alex Brewer
Singapore - Zaobao - Original Article (Chinese)
The curveball in baseball was a popular and important secret weapon when I was a pitcher for the school baseball team in elementary school. Often, once the ball is thrown, before the hitter could assess the oncoming ball, the ball would have landed in the strike zone, and the hitter would be struck out.
Perhaps examining current U.S. policy toward Taiwan like the curveball is analogous to academia or the media in Washington commenting that “the U.S. is changing its policy toward Taiwan.” Whether such a curveball will influence the progress of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations is a worthy subject of inquiry. As it affects the future and development of the trilateral relationship, there is a need for deeper discussion and analysis.
Academics Suggest the U.S. Should Abandon Promise to Taiwan
In this year’s March/April issue of the American bimonthly Foreign Affairs, Charles Glaser, a scholar of George Washington University, suggests that perhaps the U.S. should consider shifting the spotlight from Taiwan. Glaser believes that in order to encourage the improvement of U.S.-China relations in the next decades, America should consider gradually giving up its security commitment to Taiwan. This article was a shock for Washington’s academia, igniting a new round of debate on the U.S.’ China policy.
While Glaser’s idea has its merits and points, he is still committing the mistake of examining cross-strait relations (China-Taiwan) from an American perspective. In the past, I have had some interactions and exchanges with specialist scholars from American think tanks or academia. From my experience, I think that while there are some American scholars who are conversant in Chinese and are fluent in everyday conversations, they are sometimes still unable to precisely grasp what is meant when using Mandarin and the Chinese written language to read and analyze specialized bilateral issues. Often, they will use English or other non-Chinese sources in interpretation and analysis or when coming to conclusions. Even though the materials or information are well-chosen key ingredients, there is still a lack of precise and in-depth comprehension and perspective. For example, they believe that there is a compromise to be made, which is to interpret the Taiwan issue from an American viewpoint. And thus it is a pity that they “see the trees but not the forest.”
And this “unfortunate” aspect frequently shapes what is widely reported in the media, leading to erroneous reporting and distorted interpretations. That this has not stopped in the U.S. but has flooded the world is a serious and essential problem of getting to the truth. However, the U.S. does not particularly think that their interpretations are unusual. Sometimes, for the sake of face-saving, they do not care about negative public opinions, clarifications and refutations, always clinging determinedly to their interpretations. This is what has caused some U.S. scholars to misread the current situation of cross-strait relations.
More seriously, these errors in interpretation possibly cause misreading, are misused and could cause misunderstanding to a certain degree, shaping cross-strait relations, which could even morph just to take into account these views. This has caused the two great misunderstandings and misinterpretations in U.S.-China-Taiwan trilateral relations, causing exceptional harm to Taiwan. Being in the middle of two great powers, Taiwan bends itself to be liked, insulted and unfairly treated, and loses its autonomy and the chance to fight for the international presence toward which it should strive.
The arrogance and conceit of many U.S. scholars and experts has caused the rift between China and Taiwan to widen, affecting the normal development of cross-strait relations, causing Taiwan to be caught between the two in an unequal relationship and worse, sometimes being harmed and yet unable to defend or vocalize itself, losing the most important condition of autonomy and room to maneuver. Taiwan is like the daughter-in-law between two formidable in-laws — appearing exceptionally put upon and receiving unjust treatment, yet is helpless. Toward the miserable pain of helplessness, Taiwan can sometimes patiently endure, but sometimes is forced to taste bitterness. Yet, Taiwan is unable to speak up and must be taken advantage of and suffer humiliation, but what can be done?
However, the U.S. has another school of scholars holding on to a different perspective on cross-strait relations. After the publication of Glaser’s article, which calls for the gradual giving up of the security commitment toward Taiwan in order to better U.S.-China relations, it was met with a group attack and resistance from conservative think tanks and media in the U.S. — the fast annihilation of his idea was obvious.
Will the U.S. Use Taiwan in Exchange for Improved U.S.-China Relations?
Dan Blumenthal, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, states that “appeasement usually wets [sic] the appetite of the appeased.” Also, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors at the U.S. Naval Academy,* writing in The Diplomat, point out that exchanging Taiwan for better U.S.-China relations is a mistake and that “ambitious great powers tend to devour territorial concessions as appetizers — not dessert.” Such divergent views of scholars and experts are all, of course, supported by some truth and evidence, but they remain subjective viewpoints of the individual or the group. Whether or not this could affect the U.S. government remains to be seen.
What I want to further point out is that if the U.S. government’s official attitude leans toward Glaser’s “giving-up-support-for-Taiwan” argument, then it is only out of helplessness and is a temporary choice. To the roots of the issue, the U.S. still knows the importance and urgency of Taiwan’s strategic position. If this frontier and buffer zone is lost, then the U.S.’ Asian strategy would lose its center and support. U.S. national and core interests will be damaged, a strategic taboo, and the U.S. cannot be unaware of this and also will not give up on its strategy.
A temporary retreat is a last resort, with limited losses, and should still be within control of the U.S. Perhaps this is just a false alarm that is scaring everyone. To be hurt at the skin does not mean to be hurt at the muscles and bones, and so this short-term nervousness does not imply future waves of pain.
Recently, some commentators have pointed out that the U.S. international strategy has not changed, its Asian strategy has not changed, and its China strategy has not changed. With these three areas remaining unchanged, it is impossible to then change its strategy toward Taiwan.
However, the problem is that China is always dynamically changing; could the U.S. then not react? Will the policy toward Taiwan become a case of blindly clinging onto a city moat? In any case, the U.S. should be always adapting and making timely changes in reaction to China’s rapid and varied changes.
In the midst of both the U.S. and China changing, Taiwan of course needs to change as well. Whether or not Taiwan has a chance to continue developing within the confusion depends on how it could react appropriately. I wonder if Taiwan has put in place contingency measures. For the time being, let us watch with interest.
The author is a researcher at the Taiwan National Policy Foundation.
*Editor’s Note: James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors at the U.S. Naval War College.
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