US Support For Taiwan Coming Without a Price? Don't Kid Yourself

In an attempt to tamp down the nationwide furor sparked by the approval of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, the Ma Ying-Jeou administration has pleaded that any potential backlash from mainland China if the agreement is not ratified could also hinder Taiwan joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, becoming the first blow to the U.S. return to Asia policy on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to four countries in East Asia. Others misguidedly believe that strained cross-strait relations will translate into stronger U.S. support for Taiwan’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a view that is seated even more firmly in the realm of one-sided political puffery. The cherry-picked interpretations of the U.S. official stance among both the Taiwanese ruling and opposition parties are of small use to maintaining Taiwan’s most crucial interests in the midst of the cooperation and competition taking place between the U.S. and China.

President Obama is slated to visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines from April 23 to 29. The trip is a bid to consolidate the U.S. coalition in East Asia, reaffirm the U.S. alliance with Japan and possibly make a breakthrough in the currently gridlocked TPP negotiations, thus furthering the return to Asia policy.

In order to save the faltering Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, the Taiwanese government has been forced to admit that mainland China is the gatekeeper to moving Taiwan toward greater integration in the region, becoming an unexpected first tear in the sails of the U.S. return to Asia policy. The U.S. government’s denial that the agreements linked to Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement have any bearing on the TPP is nothing more than touching up the facade of a U.S. still sitting comfortably in its position as global hegemon, but the statement has been seized upon by the opposition party DPP and spun as an opportunity for Taiwan to break free of its tethers to the mainland and, with U.S. support, rid itself of the political vulnerability of its trade dependence upon the mainland market.

The fact is, however, that U.S. national interests will not be affected by fluctuations in cross-strait relations. During the 2000 to 2008 era of political tension across the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. never proactively assisted Taiwan in counterbalancing its sudden tilt toward the mainland market. Even now, the U.S. has not responded to thawing cross-strait relations by allowing Taiwan easier access to the U.S. market in the most recent Trade and Investment Framework Agreement negotiations. The only question that concerns the U.S. is how to maximize its national interests.

The long-postponed TPP talks have already suffered in credibility from the U.S. return to Asia, and the U.S. government’s clarification of its stance was an effort to contain the damage. It was done neither to make room for Taiwan to enter the TPP, nor to defuse tensions across the Taiwan Strait, but rather as a tactical move to send a message that the U.S. is retaining its grasp on the situation in the region, attempt to regain the confidence of East Asian nations, and make one final push for the beleaguered return to Asia policy.

The debate over the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement has once more highlighted the minuscule position that the Taiwan Strait occupies in between the giants of the U.S. and China. This current partisan sparring does nothing to bring the parties closer together to a common consensus on Taiwanese interests. Winning U.S. support, mending damaged relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, slowing the increasing trade reliance of Taiwan upon mainland China, and strengthening Taiwan’s negotiating position against the mainland are goals that both camps should strive toward together.

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