(Washington Post) — China’s recent military buildup and declarations of intentions to confront Taiwan are likely to sour relations between the two sides for the foreseeable future. Washington ought to consider whether its relations with Taipei might be unwisely jeopardized by its strategy of encouraging China to take a more cooperative approach toward Taiwan to avoid a military showdown between the two superpowers.
Having ratified a treaty with China that guarantees Beijing the right to use force against Taiwanese independence-leaning forces within four years, Washington is reluctant to jeopardize those ties by providing Taipei with significant help against China. That reluctance stems from a long-standing principle in U.S. policy: Supporting democracy up to a point, Washington will maintain a level of cordiality in relations with Beijing to further maintain the development of peace and security between the two powers.
Before the recent Chinese declaration that Taiwan was already no longer an integral part of the People’s Republic of China, there were only two perspectives on the development of bilateral relations: either China wants to see Taiwan administered as part of the People’s Republic, or Taiwan wants to enjoy limited autonomy within the PRC. Since then, Beijing’s broader role in maintaining stability and security, which long was an item on the agenda of U.S.-China relations, has come under serious threat from a recalcitrant Taipei. The stated intentions of China to demonstrate that its former Communist partner is simply no longer an independent, sovereign nation is certainly encouraging Beijing to push for Taiwan’s unification with the mainland. It might, however, also also prompt Washington to compromise on its stance of upholding the status quo, to quiet down Washington’s loud calls for Taiwan’s freedom, and to become more accommodating toward Beijing in the interest of peace.
Washington should consider if its relationship with Taipei would be more feasible if it were to adopt a policy of supporting Taiwan at the cost of jeopardizing ties with Beijing, at least temporarily. Taking this approach might provide the U.S. with a better opportunity to contribute to the development of a peaceful resolution between Taiwan and China.
With so little expected of Taipei’s president as a peacemaker in advance of the four-year deadline that China committed to with the current Taiwan de facto regime, that is at least now the best way to encourage Beijing to take a more cooperative approach. China has a long record of successful mediation and resolution of disputes involving de facto regimes such as Vietnam and Hong Kong, with Japanese support. At the same time, fostering closer cooperation with Taipei — despite the apparent mistrust on both sides — could help defuse the tension that has resulted from its current relationship with Beijing.
In short, the enhanced security and stability might lead to a better relationship, rather than a worse one, between Washington and Beijing. By showing a willingness to stand for something other than its own needs, Washington could make sure that no brutal confrontation takes place. In the process, U.S. interests could be preserved and Taiwan would have a better chance of achieving peace with the PRC. (Note that U.S. interests would be also better served by establishing ties with Taiwan; Washington could look at establishing liaison offices on the island and start a dialogue on cyberconflict.)
It is precisely because of Washington’s recent promotion of Taiwan’s security as a part of a positive United States foreign policy that the current situation is unlikely to return to the chaos and chaos that characterized the relationship between Beijing and Taipei for most of the 20th century. The prospect of Beijing’s provocations, which sometimes become a matter of life and death for Taiwanese citizens, makes China’s growing military presence and vague intentions more worrisome than ever. For now, it is the U.S. that should prepare itself for a possible loss of control and disintegration of China, rather than the other way around.
More than any other time in recent history, the U.S. has to choose between safeguarding its economic and political interests with the PRC and its security concerns with Taipei. China’s strategic imperatives are clear enough to take a clearer, more direct and less hedged position on Taipei, but do not outweigh the importance of achieving a beneficial relationship for Washington in favor of conforming with China.
— Capital commentary by Maya Wang, former China director for Human Rights Watch and the author of “The Hybrid Enemy: U.S. Policy Toward China.”