The fact that a flag ceremony has become a major conflict in US-Taiwan relations is as much Washington’s fault as Taipei’s. The issue should not have been raised in such a public manner. The flag issue is a distraction from the important economic rivalries, military build-ups, and territorial disputes in the region.
On January 1, 2015, the Republic of China’s representative to the United States, Shen Lyushun (沈呂巡), led a ceremony at Twin Oaks to raise their national flag. Twin Oaks is a property in northwest Washington, DC, owned by the ROC. Public events are often held there. In the past, ROC officials avoided public showing of the flag, as the United States has diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China across the Taiwan Strait, and does not officially recognize the ROC.
The ROC flag.
Now, Shen and the ROC-US relations are mired in controversy.
1. Shortly after the event, Shen stated that American officials were aware of the ceremony in advance, and presumably did not object.
2. Beijing complained about the flag ceremony in the press and apparently in private to American diplomats.
3. American officials in Washington and Taipei publicly stated that they were not informed of the ceremony, and that it harmed US-Taiwan relations. Department of State spokespersons stated that “the flag-raising ceremony violated our longstanding understanding on the conduct of our unofficial relations” and that they did not wish to see similar events in the future.
4. Shen now stands accused of harming relations with Taiwan’s most important friend.
While the flag ceremony may well have violated a “longstanding understanding” between Washington and Taipei, the nature of this conflict and the way it has been raised by the Obama Administration highlights several long-standing problems with US-China-Taiwan relations. First, it looks like the United States is too eager to please China. Regardless of the reasoning behind the American objections, the timing, content, and public nature of the rebuke of Taiwan only furthers the perception of American weakness in the face of a rising China. Amazingly, Washington is criticizing Taiwan for an act that offends China even as China seeks to woo Taiwanese through greater economic integration.
Second, since the early 1970s America leaders and diplomats have tended to focus on Taiwan as the “problem” in cross Strait relations, or as a major impediment to better Sino-American ties. It is much easier to try to change policies or personnel on Taiwan, a relatively small nation with 23 million people, than it is to change China, a nuclear power with almost 1.4 billion people. Changing China’s policies towards Taiwan would be a difficult, expensive, and possibly quixotic task–the sort of thing politicians and bureaucrats avoid.
Preventing another New Year’s Day flag ceremony is much easier and likely to be successful than addressing the growing number of missiles and warships around Taiwan. The root of the problem, reconciling national pride and identity on both sides of the Strait as China becomes wealthy and powerful, might defy solution.
Third, Washington has a habit of undermining diplomats and leaders in the name of improved Sino-American relations. For example, in July 1971, Nixon’s announcement of secret talks with China’s leaders humiliated and harmed the careers of diplomats and politicians in Taipei and Tokyo. Further, the United States has at times personalized disputes with the ROC. From 2000 to 2008, ROC President Chen Shui-bian was the focus of US ire. Now, the press is reporting rumors that the United States might by-pass Shen in its dealings with Taiwan. It is easier for Americans to focus on the idea of a couple of problematic leaders or diplomats from Taiwan than on the implications of China’s rise.
Fourth, the United States cannot win. Beijing blames Washington for any act that might give the ROC increased stature or visibility. Taipei and its American supporters blame Washington for not offering more support. Given China’s clear and consistent stance–that Taiwan is not a sovereign state but is part of the People’s Republic–Beijing’s objections to the ROC flag flying anywhere should be no surprise. As the aggrieved party, it should fall to Beijing, not Washington, to publicly criticize or to punish Taiwan.