These two issues are related. While there are many twists and turns, overall, better American ties to Taiwan have been a function of problems in Washington’s relationship with Beijing. After Mao Zedong’ “leaned to one side” in 1949, allied with Stalin in February 1950, then entered the Korean War in November 1950, the United States backed Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan. When Nixon, then Carter, sought better ties to Beijing in the 1970s, ties to the Republic of China on Taiwan were downgraded. Thanks to the One China policy, the United States has never found an effective way to have strong relations with both.
As China and the United States find themselves embroiled in conflicts today, such as those resulting from China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims, democratic Taiwan looks more appealing. Better ties to Taiwan is a way to signal American unhappiness to Beijing. In this context, the visit of Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen to the United States this month is excellent timing. Beijing is very suspicious of her and her supporters. She does not want unification with an authoritarian mainland regime, nor to the vast majority of people on the island. In the past, DPP policies were portrayed as dangerous because they angered Beijing–good relations with China was a top priority for many Americans. However, more and more people are looking at Taiwan and leaders like Tsai in a favorable light–perhaps not so much out of love for Taiwan as out of anger at the mainland. Some suggest that Tsai has learned her lesson from her previous visit, where she was strongly criticized by anonymous Obama Administration figures for allegedly being a destabilizing force in cross Strait relations. While the DPP has become better at conveying its moderate policies to Americans, particularly in the press and on Capitol Hill, the real change is among the Americans. The Nixon/Kissinger dream that a rising China could be successfully integrated into the international community and would not threaten its neighbors is beginning to break down.
Obviously, this is good for Tsai in the short-term. It is important to remember, however, that the historical pattern probably still holds: Beijing could undermine US-Taiwan ties, and the DPP, by adopting more conciliatory policies toward Washington and its allies in the Asia-Pacific.
China’s increasingly adamant claims in the South China Sea and its growing military power has raised regional tensions and become a key test of President Obama’s “rebalancing” policy toward East Asia.