Washington’s Asia policy team key to Taiwan-US relations

File photo: Clinton, Lien met at APEC.

As U.S. voters get ready to go to the polls Nov. 6 in the hotly contested presidential election, people in Taiwan are wondering which candidate will be better for their nation. In the final analysis, it will be the advisors in Washington’s Asia policy team who will make the difference.

In the face of mainland China’s increasing economic and military influence, the U.S. is committed to strategic rebalancing toward Asia. The election deserves close attention in light of the complex sovereignty disputes in the East China and South China seas, the power struggle between Washington and Beijing in the Asia-Pacific, and the importance of the U.S. for the security and survival of the Republic of China.

With regard to strategy, U.S. policy toward Taiwan has been quite consistent, and is unlikely to be revised because of a shift in political power. As Washington likes to say, U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed for 40 years and eight presidents.

The framework is the “one China” policy, based on the Taiwan Relations Act and the three communiques between Washington and Beijing. Under this principle, the U.S. recognizes the People’s Republic of China but maintains unofficial but strong and friendly relations with the ROC. Looked at from this angle, there will be little difference no matter who wins the presidential election.

In terms of political parties, the Republicans are often thought to be friendlier to Taiwan: Ronald Reagan reproached Jimmy Carter for breaking diplomatic ties with ROC; George H.W. Bush decided to sell Taiwan 150 F-16 A/B jet fighters, dispelling the specter of gradually reduced arms sales raised by the 1982 communique; George W. Bush announced unprecedentedly large arm sales to Taiwan as soon as he took office.

During the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, however, it was the Democrat Bill Clinton who deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. And President Barack Obama consulted with Taipei when he was negotiating joint announcements during his visit to mainland China; Obama has also twice made important decisions to sell arms to Taiwan, and recently granted ROC citizens visa-waiver status.

It is thus hard to argue that the Democrats are less friendly to Taiwan; there is no obvious difference between the Taiwan policies of Republican and Democratic administrations.

The real key to Taiwan-U.S. relations lies in policy implementation, which involves the National Security Council, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Commerce and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. High-ranking officials, concerned with Washington’s interests in every corner of the globe, do not necessarily pay frequent attention to Taiwan’s needs or the cross-strait situation, making the counsel of Asia policy advisors crucial.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, have in the past three years given renewed importance to multilateral relations within the region and strengthened ties with traditional allies, laying the foundation for the U.S. pivot to Asia.

The pair’s boldness regarding Taiwan policy and close working relationship can be seen in the meeting with former ROC Vice President Lien Chan at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in Vladivostok, the active steps taken after promising to restart talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, admission to the Visa Waiver Program and even ROC National Day celebrations at the politically sensitive Twin Oaks estate.

But Secretary Clinton has said several times that even if Obama is re-elected she will not continue in public office, and it is widely rumored that Campbell will follow suit. Thus developments in Taiwan-U.S. relations will hinge on the members of Washington’s next Asia policy lineup, their views on the governments and societies of Taiwan and mainland China, and their personalities and team chemistry.

By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

Dr. Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang is an assistant professor in the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, Tamkang University.

Copyright © 2012 Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang