Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should follow her successful Burma initiative with a visit to Taiwan before next month’s presidential election.
When the secretary met with both President Thein Sein and political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, his likely rival in the next election, she demonstrated America’s commitment to democracy in Burma. Her overture also afforded that government some breathing space with its overbearing neighbor—China.
She could do the same for Taiwan by meeting with the incumbent president, Ma Ying Jeou, the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate, and with his campaign opponents, Tsai Ing Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and James Soong of the People’s First Party.
Such a trip would accomplish several important things.
(1) It would continue the escalation of high-level visits the administration has been conducting during the run-up to the election—after three years of deferring to Beijing by shunning Taiwan.
In September, the assistant commerce secretary was “the most senior U.S. official to visit Taiwan in five years.” Moving up the bureaucratic ranks, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development made the 14-hour flight two weeks ago. Last week, the deputy secretary of energy became “the highest-ranking official in a decade” to head to Taipei. Secretary Clinton could take the visits to the next level.
(2) It would establish the precedent of government-to-government contact that Washington has long feared would jeopardize Sino-U.S. relations. That unnecessary passivity has fostered an unfortunate tradition of keeping U.S. visits below cabinet level.
(3) More importantly for Taiwan’s presidential campaign, it would help correct the unfortunate impression that the current flurry of official visits is the Obama administration’s way of influencing the election in President Ma’s favor. That reflects Beijing’s preference for Ma’s reelection—which is why it has not complained about the recent spate of high-level U.S. visits to Taiwan.
This is not the first Taiwan election that China’s Communist leaders have found repugnant in principle and a bad example for their politically repressed population.
In 1996, China fired missiles across the strait to try to stop Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, or at least to defeat Lee Teng-hui who espoused a Taiwan identity. In 2000, Premier Zhu Rong Ji went on Chinese television, seen in Taiwan, to wag his finger at the camera and warn Taiwan’s voters not to elect pro-independence DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian. In 2004, Washington joined Beijing in expressing its distaste for the DPP’s policies and supported the KMT candidate. On all three occasions, Taiwan’s voters did the opposite of what Beijing directed them to do.
This time, China has again warned that the Taiwanese “should not make the wrong choice” but it has followed the advice of American officials and scholars by mostly cooling its rhetoric to avoid a pro-DPP backlash. Instead, Washington has served effectively as Beijing’s pro-KMT surrogate.
In a call to the Financial Times, an unnamed administration official reportedly said after a meeting with DPP candidate Tsai Ing Wen that she might not be “willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.” Yet Tsai has repeatedly said that, if elected, she would “refrain from [the] extreme or radical approaches” for which the Chen administration was condemned.
Hsiao Bi Khim, a Tsai spokesperson who attended the meeting, said the official’s remarks conflicted with the actual discussions. She said Tsai assured the Americans the DPP would follow a “stable and balanced approach” on cross-strait relations and committed “to work towards the common interest of peace and stability.”
And the unidentified administration official himself conceded that Tsai had pledged “to avoid gratuitous provocations” of China.
Why then did he deign to cast doubts on Tsai’s capacity to behave as U.S. officials think she should? Because, he said, it was “far from clear . . . that she and her advisers fully appreciate the depth of [Chinese] mistrust of her motives and DPP aspirations.”
The implication of that remarkable statement is clear: The democratically elected leaders of Taiwan must satisfy not only the American government that supports its de facto independence but also the Communist dictatorship that is committed to destroying it.
Beijing has not been shy about condemning Taiwan’s multi-party democracy. No matter how moderate an individual DPP leader may be, in China’s eyes the entire party is disqualified from governing because someone within it may take positions displeasing to China.
Put another way, China would clearly prefer a return to Taiwan’s one-party rule—that would facilitate eventual political integration with China's authoritarianism. Sadly, Washington has decided that Beijing should not only have a vote in Taiwan’s election, but a veto.
Secretary Clinton can get the United States back on the right side of Taiwan’s democracy by visiting on an equal and neutral basis with each of the three presidential candidates. Then Taiwan’s voters will have only Beijing’s interference to reckon with, not Washington’s, as they exercise their self-government rights.
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.