Why Is the U.S. Ignoring Taiwan?
June 14, 2007
Even as the United States is engaged in a global war against Islamist extremists, it has maintained its focus on other, more traditional security commitments around the world. For example, the six-party talks on North Korea and continued support to the government of Colombia in its struggle against narco-terrorists show that the U.S. has not neglected its other important global obligations.
Except perhaps one.
The commitment we have made to defend Taiwan if the island nation is attacked by China may be floundering, in a growing gap between what we say we are prepared to do to honor that commitment, and what we actually are doing to ensure we understand -- and can execute -- our commitment.
Simply put, U.S. policy toward Taiwan -- a pro-U.S. democracy with an emerging two-party system -- appears to be drifting. Formal and informal contacts, already complicated by the absence of diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei, have become less frequent, less high-level and less hospitable. If we are not careful, we may find ourselves in a situation where we would have to extricate ourselves -- gracefully or otherwise -- from a commitment that will have become increasingly difficult to honor.
The heart of the problem is that there is very little transparency between the U.S. and Taiwan. Neither treaty, statute nor explicit policy stands in the way. Rather, credit bureaucratic policy drift, made possible by otherwise distracted policy makers, combined with over-reliance on wishful thinking with respect to the U.S.-China relationship.
As journalist James Mann has argued, today's status quo has also developed in part because of the artful application by leaders in Beijing and their more ardent supporters in the U.S. of such terms as "provocative," and "pushing the envelope" in characterizing Taiwan's actions with respect to its status and its relations with China. The acceptance of such language makes it difficult for the U.S. to draw closer to Taiwan without risking Beijing's ire.
The rhetoric-reality gap provokes obvious questions: What preconditions are in place to ensure that military action is a last resort? Under what circumstances would the U.S. intervene? What is the state of the Taiwan military leadership? How ready are Taiwan's forces to defend themselves? How ready are U.S. forces to work with them, should that be necessary?
Taiwan might be more serious about providing for its own defense and less reliant on U.S. commitments if there were greater clarity into what they mean and how they might be discharged. But the limited interaction imposed by the reality of U.S.-China-Taiwan circumstances has made this goal difficult to achieve. Today, the bureaucracy makes decisions by self-policing an unstated policy of "nothing goes." One recent example: In May, the U.S. National Press Club hosted a discussion with Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian by video link. U.S. officials at the desk-officer level concluded that it would undermine policy to attend this public event, reasoning that Mr. Chen's appearance was intended as an attempt to circumvent restrictions on senior Taiwan officials visiting Washington, D.C.
But the lack of interaction goes beyond one-off, questionable decisions such as that. Military officers at the one-star level or above, or the civilian equivalent, are not permitted to meet in Taiwan with their counterparts. While there is serious contingency planning at high levels on both sides, senior U.S. planners and decision makers do not interact with their Taiwan counterparts. The dialogue instead is conducted by proxy at lower levels of government.
Even simple meetings are less frequent in recent years. As late as 2003, State and Defense Department officials -- albeit at the mid-grade deputy assistant secretary level -- were permitted to meet regularly with senior Taiwanese officials including the foreign minister outside of Washington, D.C. That contact no longer takes place. At the highest levels, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship would have to get much closer to even describe it as "arms-length." No cabinet-level officials have met their Taiwanese counterparts since the Clinton administration.
As for the Taiwan president, he traditionally has been permitted to enter the U.S. only during a "transit" to other countries. In the past, that so-called transit was in practice an opportunity for the Taiwan leader to meet distinguished Americans, make civic addresses, and otherwise be treated as a visiting dignitary. That policy, too, has decayed over the past several years. By 2006, through bureaucratic drift and a desire not to be too "provocative" given warming relations with Beijing, the U.S. offered only a brief stop in Alaska, which Mr. Chen declined. In January 2007, President Chen was permitted a short stop in San Francisco, but social, civic and press interactions were extremely limited.
Is this really the most effective approach toward the leader of a government we may have to shed American blood to defend? Might it not be better simply to acknowledge our unwillingness or inability to do what must be done to sustain our security commitment?
U.S. policy toward Taiwan may itself be provocative, but not because the U.S. seeks to do too much with Taipei. Instead, we appear uninterested in doing much at all to better understand the implications of our own declared policy. Of course, we do not owe Taiwan or any other country certainty about U.S. intentions. Strategic ambiguity is important and governments reserve that option, particularly with respect to the use of military power. What has evolved with Taiwan, though, is something quite different: Strategic avoidance of the unique challenges posed by maintaining a security commitment with a country with which we have no diplomatic relations.
This is a complex affair, not to be quickly or easily resolved. There are obvious first steps. U.S. Presidents frequently rely upon special envoys -- formal or informal -- to examine regional issues. For example, both Democratic and Republican Presidents have discovered sufficient U.S. interests in the Balkans, Western Sahara and Sudan to appoint distinguished Americans to address them.
But none of these matters had the potential to affect our strategic priorities as much as the U.S.-China-Taiwan nexus. A presidential envoy in this instance would not be without precedent. Former President Reagan relied upon trusted informal advisors, including National Security Advisor Bill Clark and Senator Paul Laxalt to serve as channels to former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui. President Clinton followed this pattern and former Congressman Lee Hamilton also served as an envoy to Taiwan.
President Bush should consider assigning this matter to the attention of such an envoy. Someone with sufficient stature and political mien could open a window for the President into the three-party situation that now is not possible given the stunted inter-agency and diplomatic processes. This is no panacea. But it might help reduce the risk to our own credibility that stems from paying insufficient attention to security guarantees no one forced us to make.
President Bush and his national security team have remained commendably focused on a number of disparate challenges around the world. The President has shown he is prepared to bear any burden and pay any price in pursuit of democratic freedom in some of the unlikeliest places on the globe. At far less cost, a bit more transparency with a pro-U.S. democratic government that represents 23 million free people seems like something perhaps only he can achieve, given bureaucratic tendencies to the contrary.
Ms. Shaheen is president and CEO of USAsia International, Inc., an investment advisory firm with offices in Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul. As immediate past chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, she was also the highest-ranking U.S. representative to Taiwan.