Beijing and Washington got the result they actively sought in Taiwan’s election: a second four-year term for President Ma Ying-jeou and the defeat of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party. China and the United States—as well as Taiwan—must now live with the consequences of that outside intervention in Taiwan’s democratic politics.
China wanted Ma’s reelection because he has been relatively acquiescent to its demands. He agreed to trade and commercial measures that foster Sino-Taiwanese economic integration and, potentially, political unification. Conversely, Beijing warned Taiwan’s voters that a Tsai victory would endanger cross-Strait relations and risk renewed confrontation with China.
The United States favored Ma because China did, and it used unprecedented official visits, journalistic leaks, and diplomatic concessions to support him as the safer bet. Washington knew a DPP victory would anger Beijing and believed it would significantly relax its cross-Strait posture if Ma won. But that analysis did not take into account China’s heightened expectations of how a second Ma term would advance its ultimate goal of Taiwan unification.
Beijing will now claim credit for helping to elect Ma—even though the case can be made that Ma won despite China’s meddling, and in three previous elections Taiwan’s voters defied Beijing’s instructions.
Exploiting Ma’s own inclination to move closer to China, Beijing will now demand payback in the scope and pace of his accommodation under the threat of its Anti-Secession Law. But Ma almost certainly will not be able to deliver what Beijing wants because the Taiwanese people are unwilling to follow his pro-China posture that far.
That was clear in November when Ma announced he would seek a peace accord with China in his second term. The public’s immediate negative reaction to the political implications caused Ma to backtrack and defer vaguely to some future referendum.
Washington’s anti-DPP approach—siding with Communist China to return Taiwan effectively to one-party rule despite the trappings of free elections—has been a strategic illusion as well as a moral error by the world’s leading democracy. Although President Obama’s press secretary congratulated Taiwan for “again demonstrat[ing] the strength and vitality of its democratic system,” U.S. policy now suggests that only one party’s rule is acceptable to Beijing and Washington.
Washington should use Ma’s new term to offer some fresh thinking about the China-Taiwan-United States relationship as part of the Obama administration’s new Asia-centric policy.
That requires a reset of America’s doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” regarding the defense of Taiwan. Beijing needs to be told, publicly as well as privately, that while it can do what it will peacefully to attract Taiwan to accept its sovereignty—moves toward Chinese democracy would help—the United States will not permit any use of force or coercion to accomplish that end. Washington should advise Beijing that, contrary to currently stated U.S. policy, there are no conceivable “circumstances” under which the United States would tolerate a Chinese attack against Taiwan.
That is prudent not only for Taiwan but for China itself, encouraging it to halt its costly and dangerous preparations for conflict with Taiwan and the United States. Strategic clarity would prevent the kind of miscalculation that tragically unleashed the Korean War. As Henry Kissinger has written, “The United States did not expect the invasion; China did not expect the reaction.” Washington and Beijing can avoid repeating those mistakes over Taiwan.
The administration should also regularize the visa waiver program and high-level diplomatic contacts it used to help Ma’s reelection campaign. Since China acquiesced in those anti-DPP tactics, it cannot credibly complain as it becomes permanent U.S. policy. A visit to Taiwan by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would nicely bookend her Burma trip last month to further that country’s prospects for democracy.
Finally, Washington should fulfill commitments going back to the Bush and Clinton administrations to expand Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. By these actions, the administration can compensate for its own unseemly tampering with Taiwan’s democracy to appease China, and achieve long-term benefits for the Taiwanese people and regional stability.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer from 2005 to 2006 and previously taught graduate seminars on China-U.S. relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.