China and Taiwan are getting along much better these days.
Considering the stake the United States has in their relationship,
that's good news.
But this is no time to let down our guard, as Chinese officials
have been urging.
Wang Yi, who heads China's Taiwan Affairs Office, visited
Washington last month to press the case against U.S. arms sales to
Taiwan. At the same time, U.S. Undersecretary of defense Michele
Flournoy was in Beijing for military talks, hearing the same pitch.
The United States should not waver in the face of Chinese pressure
to reduce the quality and quantity of American support for Taiwan.
To do so would both jeopardize Taiwan's security and risk returning
to a fractious, tense and dangerous cross-Strait relationship.
Clearly, the Chinese are testing the waters. One can only hope
the Obama administration takes a firm stand. Taiwan's president , Ma
Ying-jeou, has been lauded, and rightly so, for delivering tangible
benefits from his engagement with China. His early moves have
brought direct flights between the two, observer status for Taiwan
at the 2009 World Health Assembly meeting, and myriad new economic
opportunities. Such concessions by the Chinese are essential for
President Ma. His credibility at home depends on delivering better
relations with China.
But his reasons for pursuing "engagement"--to reduce tensions
and offer new opportunities for Taiwan's many global
interests--differ from those of the Chinese.
The people of Taiwan predominantly support the "status quo,"
essentially a de facto independence. Any Taiwan president straying
too far from that position will rapidly lose domestic support. Ma
therefore depends wholly on Chinese willingness to give Taiwan
greater international breathing room. Yet, despite the recent ease
in tensions, China continues to hedge on its Taiwan policy. Beijing
feels a need to keep its options open--including the use of
military force, something the mainland has refused to renounce.
Beijing's substantial force modernization effort continues at full
speed. Meanwhile, the People's Liberation Army remains focused on
ensuring its ability to coerce Taiwan while deterring U.S.
Negotiating in these circumstances isn't easy for Taiwan. What
strengthens its hand immeasurably is a robust and material U.S.
security commitment. This backing underpins Ma's outreach and
ensures a degree of Chinese respect for Taiwan's options. It gives
him the strength to tell China "no." Entering any dialogue without
the power to walk away is a losing proposition. The United States
sells arms to Taiwan not to turn it into an offensive threat but in
response to China's military threat. If power tilts too heavily in
favor of China, as it does today, then America must assist Taiwan.
Not doing so would create instability. It would also contradict
Given the thaw in the cross-Strait relationship, Ambassador Wang
and his colleagues in Beijing no doubt presented a strong case for
the United States to curtail support for Taiwan--particularly as
the Obama administration has so many other issues on its docket for
engagement with China. It would be tempting to simply let Taiwan
and China "get on with it," doing less with Taiwan in the hopes
that China will then be more receptive to supporting U.S.
priorities such as climate change. Yielding to this temptation
would be great folly.
China knows exactly what it wants in its relationship with
Taiwan: unification. All of its decisions related to Taiwan are
driven by that single goal, and it will look closely at ways to
erode U.S. support for Taiwan, particularly in the area of defense.
The Chinese continue to identify F-16s for Taiwan as a red-line
issue, making the decision on that sale one that could have grave
consequences for U.S.-China relations. In so doing, they seek to
involve China directly in U.S. policy considerations of Taiwan's
material defense needs.
If America chooses to back off--or simply take a minimalist
approach--voters in Taiwan will notice. So will China. U.S.
diffidence would erode Ma's domestic support for improved
relations, as Taiwan's voters become nervous at the prospect of
fewer options. China, by contrast, will become further emboldened
by a softening of U.S. support for Taiwan. This would encourage
fewer concessions and a heavier hand from Beijing. Surely, tensions
would start to rise again. With reduced U.S. support, Taiwan will
be in an even weaker position to deal with rising tensions. That
could easily leave Taiwan and Washington with fewer--and far
starker--policy options in the future.
Walter Lohman is director of Heritage's Asian
Studies Center. Rupert Hammond-Chambers is president of the
US-Taiwan Business Council.