Sino-American Conflict in the South China Sea and the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen visits the United States

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.

south china seaTsai Ing-wen, Democratic Progressive Party candidate for the President of the Republic of China on Taiwan, benefits:   tsai ing-wen

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Who will run for President on Taiwan?

While it is far to soon to predict a victory for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in next year’s presidential election, at least that party appears to have a candidate.  Tsai Ying-wen, who lost the 2012 contest of current President Ma Ying-jeou, will lead her party.  The Nationalist Party, however, appears in disarray for several reasons.

1. President Ma is an unpopular lame-duck.  The Nationalist Party has controlled the executive and the legislative branch for seven years, and they cannot escape responsibility for problems related to the economy or the island’s governance.

2. The Nationalist Party appears divided between supporters of Wang Jin-pyng ( 王金平), President of the Legislative Yuan, and Eric Chu (朱立倫) Chairman of the Nationalist Party and Mayor of New Taipei (the suburban area around Taipei City).

3. Taiwan’s public appears to have reached the limit of their comfort with greater integration with the mainland.  Last year’s successful Sunflower protest movement against an agreement on cross Strait services was a warning to politicians.   The Nationalist Party has consistently advocated greater cross Strait ties.

4. By tying itself to the People’s Republic so clearly, the Nationalists find it difficult to disconnect them selves from any unpopular policy coming from Beijing.  This includes the overall crack-down on dissent within China, the efforts to undermine democracy in Hong Kong, a rapid military build-up, and territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Perhaps Wang and/or Chu are hoping to be “forced” to run.  Perhaps the Nationalists are convinced that they cannot win in 2016.


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Flag raising controversy?

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.

flag-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.

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Where does Taiwan go in 2015?

2014 was not a great year for the ruling Nationalist Party.  First, President Ma was dealt a clear set-back due to the Sunflower Movement, where students occupied the legislature in order to protest an agreement that would have liberalized cross-Strait services.


Second, the November elections were a huge success for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.    After the defeat, Ma stepped down as leader of the Nationalists Party.  Like Obama, Ma may become a lame duck long before the 2016 elections.

For a couple of reasons, however, things are not as bad for the Nationalists as they first appear.   First, Taiwan’s economy has shown a slight improvement.   GDP grew around 3.43% in 2014, up from 2.23% in 2013.   Second, the success of Republicans in controlling both the House and Senate is good news for Taiwan.  In general, Republicans in Congress are supporters of Taiwan, and may press Obama and Kerry to do more for the island, even if this incurs Beijing’s wrath.  Third, perhaps in anticipation of greater pressure from Congress, Obama has already made two changes that indicate a willingness to accommodate Taiwan a bit more.   The Obama Administration is moving ahead with arms sales to Taiwan.  In December, the Department of State announced the sale of four Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigates.   This New Year’s the ROC raised their flag at their Twin Oaks compound in Washington, an important symbolic act that gives Taiwan a bit more international status.  Fourth, it is still not entirely clear whether the election debacle was a vote against the Nationalist Party or a repudiation of Ma and the services agreement.

ROC flag at Twin Oaks

However, in 2015 several factors will determine whether Ma can re-assert his influence.

1.  Politics in Washington.  Will conservative Republicans be willing and able to make China policy and support for Taiwan into major issues?   They confront a consensus among many on both sides of the aisle that relations with China should never be endangered by Taiwan.

2. Taiwan’s economy.  Will improvements in the economy alleviate the concerns over income inequality and dependence on China that drove the Sunflower Movement in 2014?

3. China’s economy.   China is Taiwan’s most important economic partner.  Will China’s economic slow-down continue, and how will it impact Taiwan?

4. Nationalist Party politics.  Taipei City Mayor Eric Liluan Chu will probably win a Nationalist Party election in mid-January to become chairman of the party.   As one of the few rising stars in the Nationalist ranks, will he keep his promise not to run for president?   Will Mayor Chu and President of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jinpyng, cooperate to the detriment of Ma?

5. DPP politics.   Will the DPP be united?  Will the DPP’s electoral success in 2014 mean that voters increasingly hold this party accountable for Taiwan’s governance and economy?    Since the presidency of Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP candidate to win the office, critics of the DPP in Taiwan and Washington often portray the party’s stance on relations with China as unrealistic and provocative.

6. Wild cards.   Will Chen, a highly controversial figure, inject himself into Taiwan’s politics?  Will China and Japan allow their territorial disputes to spin out of control into a military conflict?  Will political oppression in Hong Kong, Macau, and the rest of China result in violent resistance?   Can the leaders in Beijing control the aggressive nationalism that they themselves have fostered?

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More thoughts on Hong Kong protests

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A few thoughts on Hong Kong

I was happy to be asked a few questions about Hong Kong and its troubled relationship with Beijing:


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The Democratic Progressive Party faces some challenges

The relatively low poll numbers for Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist Party leader and President of the Republic of China, would seem to bolster the opposition’s prospects for the November elections—and perhaps in the 2016 presidential contest.  Ma is a lame-duck, and the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students this year would seem to stymie his efforts to build cross Strait economic ties.  Further, some on the island feel strongly that the promised economic benefits of cross Strait economic relations have not been been realized, or have not been shared equitably among Taiwanese.  The mainland’s increasingly aggressive policies toward Japan and others in the region has not helped Ma, who has emphasized how better relations with Beijing would help stabilize the region.

Further, the Democratic Progressive Party has some strong leaders with with good reputations for their governance of cities or counties on Taiwan.

However, based on two trips to Taiwan this summer, and what I’ve read, I think the DPP is not, and should not become, over-confident.

1. Taiwan has a history of “surprises” right before major elections.

2. It is unknown to what extent the mainland will encourage or facilitate the return of Taiwanese to vote in a non-presidential election.

3. The DPP has a difficult relationship with the students and activists who occupied the legislature in early 2014.  It is unclear whether the party will be harness that discontent at the ballot box.  These young people probably won’t vote for the Nationalist Party, but will they turn out for the DPP?

4. Greater cross Strait ties have created some economic incentives for some constituencies to temper their support of the DPP.  This was seen in southern Taiwan during the last presidential contest.

5. In the past, the Nationalists have been able to portray the DDP as unrealistic about Taiwan’s power and its potential to create international space.  How long will the legacy of Chen Shui-bian haunt the DPP?

6. Some strong Nationalist politicians in central and northern Taiwan might be able to stake out independent positions that distance themselves from Ma in the minds of voters.

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