Taiwan’s relationship with the US

When it comes to international relations, only two things really matter in Taiwan: Taiwan’s relationship with China, and Taiwan’s relationship with America. As everyone knows, links between Beijing and Taipei have been strained for a while now. Unfortunately, links between Taipei and Washington aren’t much better – and it’s a pretty inexcusable state of affairs.

Of course, there are major policy differences between the two countries: in particular, while the US supports Taiwan’s democracy and effective freedom, it is very keen for Taiwan not to do anything that ‘rocks the boat’. In practice, this means that anything that upsets China is likely to upset America. However, almost all countries have their differences and the issue isn’t where you differ: it’s how you manage your relations to maximise communication, understanding and the possibility of mutually-acceptable compromises.

A recent example of the inept handling of Taiwan-US relations came over Chinese new year, when President Chen casually announced he was thinking of scrapping the National Unification Council. Because the US had no forewarning, it gave a strong (over)reaction which mixed a justified anger over not being informed with a lack of comprehension as to what Chen was doing. How is it possible that relations could get to this state?

The historical connection

The US has held a lot of influence on Taiwan’s development since World War II. However, since that first foray into Chinese-Taiwanese relations in Cairo 1943, it has been the KMT that the US government has interacted with – something which still seems to be an issue for the current government. The majority of diplomats and Taiwan-experts in the US had regular contact with senior KMT officials and built up their relationship with the KMT. When the DPP took over power in 2000, the US suddenly found that their contacts weren’t in control, and they had to develop a whole new set of relationships.

Equally, on the Taiwanese side any senior career diplomat will have cut his teeth during the KMT regime, and will almost certainly have been a KMT member. This presented a problem to the DPP – assign a ‘party loyalist’ with little or no experience, or try to use senior experienced KMT members? When Chen Shui-bian became president he assigned Chen Chien-jen (程建人) as de-facto Ambassador to the US. Chen was a KMT member[*] – but someone with excellent links in Washington, and was widely seen as an excellent choice for the job. Indeed, in 2003 Chen was receiving rave reviews from the DPP and being snubbed by the (ever-petulant) Lien Chan. But the problem remains, as someone who was previously the KMT’s foreign minister, how well trusted was he by the DPP government? And how well could he explain to the US controversial issues like the 2004 referendum?

Chen resigned from his post after the 2004 presidential election, and has been replaced by another KMT member, David Lee (李大維). Again, noone has seriously questioned[**] his experience, competence or integrity, but it is almost certain that he is very distant from the government’s decision-making processes; he probably has as hard a time understanding some decisions as his US counterparts, to whom he should be explaining things. Unfortunately, the US post is generally seen as too junior a position for anyone who has both the experience with the US and the connections inside the DPP – for example Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) turned down the position in 2004[***].

While Taiwan has been struggling to bridge the blue-green divide in diplomatic appointees, the US appointments seem to have fallen foul of this overly partisan split in Taiwanese politics. The head of the AIT (America’s diplomatic office for Taiwan) during President Chen’s first term was Therese Shaheen who was famously outspoken in support of Taiwan in general (and the DPP government in particular). Her claims that George Bush was Chen Shui-bian’s “guardian angel”, and that the US didn’t oppose independence (they just didn’t support it either) drew heavy criticism from other US officials, and often led Taiwanese officials to believe that they had more support in Washington than they did. In the end, she was fired after congratulating Chen on his win in 2004 before the White House did:

State Department officials acknowledged that Beijing had been riled by a series of Taiwan policy pronouncements that Shaheen has made since she was appointed the AIT chairman of the board and managing director on December 31, 2002. But they said Shaheen’s troubles emanated not from the Chinese complaints but rather from the fact that her policy pronouncements were frequently at odds with US policy.

“She wasn’t faithfully representing the policies of the president,” said one diplomatic source. “She would say things like: ‘What the president meant to say was this’ or ‘This is what US policy really is’. She was being inconsistent and in that position you can’t do that,” the source said, noting the particular sensitivities about the US relationships with Taiwan and China.

Meanwhile, Douglas Paal (the Taipei-based directory of the AIT) was someone who had strong links with the KMT and fairly strained relations with the DPP.

Paal “has basically no relationship with the DPP,” argues one American official, because he came to Taiwan as a Sinophile and interacts mostly with the opposition KMT. (DPP sources confirm that Paal and Chen have strained interactions.) American officials say that inside the administration Paal and some other relatively pro-China diplomats portray Chen and his compatriots as irresponsible leaders who have whipped up pro-independence sentiment and wrongly believe that, if the KMT regains power, the issue of Taiwanese independence will die.

The combination of Shaheen and Paal has guaranteed a string of wildly conflicting interpretations of policy going in both directions across the Pacific.

The current situation

So, During Chen’s first term, policy was passed from a pro-independence government to a pro-unification ambassador who then relayed it to a pro-independence AIT head who in turn passed it on to a generally pro-China US government. It’s hardly surprising that there was plenty of miscommunication and re-interpretation of issues. Unfortunately, the situation has got worse in Chen’s second term.

Shaheen (who left ten months ago) has been replaced as AIT Chairman by … nobody.

Paal (who left last month) has been replaced as AIT Director by … nobody.

A replacement for Paal, Stephen Young, was announced this week but he won’t start work until next month. Like Paal, he is someone who has good links with the KMT, but issues with the DPP. The next AIT Chairman still hasn’t been announced, but it is expected to be Raymond Burghardt, who was an AIT Director in Taipei several years ago. However, it is expected that the post will be down-graded to a part time position.

So, what to do?

The most basic point is that it would help if both sides took relations seriously. The recent NUC flap showed that President Chen didn’t consider informing the US about a major announcement (and it seems didn’t even bother mentioning it to his foreign ministry or US ambassador). Equally, the fact that the US can leave their most senior position vacant for nearly a year, and fail to announce a replacement to the 2nd position before that becomes vacant shows they’re not focused on communication with Taiwan.

However, the onus has got to be on Taiwan to improve things: any reduction in US support for Taiwan would cost them nothing (and improved relations with China would be a big incentive) while being a major problem for Taiwan. Chen Shui-bian has had over 5 years to build up a relationship with the Bush administration in the US, and has clearly failed to do so. Even if he doesn’t realise the importance of this, the electorate does: a recent poll showed that more people were worried about America’s response to scrapping the NUC than were worried about China’s response.

Perhaps it’s time that the job of handling US-Taiwan relations should be upgraded: the current cabinet has room for a Director of the Coastguard, the chairman of the MAC, a minister in charge of Mongolian and Tibetan affairs and chairman of the Overseas Chinese Comission. Looks like there’s room for someone dedicated to improving US relations.
* He possibly gave up his KMT membership to serve for a non-KMT government, but I’m not sure about it.
** There have been accusations by certain politicians aiming at scoring cheap political points, but I don’t consider those ‘serious’.
*** I also have a vague memory of Hisao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) being asked whether she’d consider the job in 2004 to which she responded “Do you think I’m stupid?” but I can’t find a reference to it … so maybe I misremembered.

7 thoughts on “Taiwan’s relationship with the US

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  3. James

    Another excellent analysis.

    With regard to your point that there isn’t much in it for the US, I would say that you’re using two different sets of value when you say that–the fact is, that political support for Taiwan remains strong and so there is a loss of value if Taiwan moves towards unification. In other words, from a cold-calculating perspective, Americans may economically/politically gain from better relations with China and abandoning Taiwan, but this clear _isn’t_ their system of value because they _do_ support Taiwan.

    Even from a more utilitarian perspective, actually I do think the US has something to gain militarily from China always having a hostile Taiwan nearby. This is what China accuses the US of, and if Taiwan were a hostile nation 50 miles off the coast the US, it would have long ago been invaded or crippled or co-opted in some way. I don’t think the US consciously supports Taiwan for this reason, but from a realist’s perspective, it may be beneficial to trade with China on the one hand, and support Taiwan militarily on the other.

    That said, of course, your point still stands. Taiwan has a lot more to lose than the US does, so despite the incompetence on both sides of the other strait that you so clearly detail, the onus is really on CSB and whoever’s next to keep communication with the US good, especially given the current strains on the US.

  4. ACB

    I’m more worried about Taiwan’s relationship with Japan.

    There are a whole host of Taiwanese natioalists out there trying to draw Japan in as a wedge between China and Taiwan.

    Nastly little men like Ko Bunyu are appealing to Japanese nationalists for support, and are even going so far as to publicly say that Taiwan owes it’s modern day freedoms and prosperity to Japanese occupation (some of which is true, but which is still a very dangerous thing to say).

    Even Lee Teng-hui has been pranciny around Japanese nationalist sites trying to drum up support.

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