Cross-strait optimism 1

Jonas Brown, who will be getting his third masters’ degree at SAIS in December, reports:

The government shutdown last week led President Obama to cancel his long-planned Asia trip, prompting media speculation about the negative implications for his “rebalancing” to Asia and a potential boost to China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region.  Against this backdrop, Taiwanese, Chinese and American experts met at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) last Thursday and Friday for a conference entitled “Cross-Strait Developments in 2013: New Trends and Prospects.”  The event included four panel discussions and a keynote speech by Kin Moy, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.  Each panel featured four presenters and a commentator, tasked with synthesizing the panelists’ observations and offering concluding remarks. 

Arthur Shuh-Fan Ding, a research fellow at National Chengchi University in Taipei, led off the first panel discussion “The Washington-Tapei-Beijing Triangle.”  Focusing on Washington-Beijing relations, he predicted a continued mix of moderate cooperation and managed competition.  China assumed a more coercive role in the region after the 2008 global financial crisis weakened the US economy.  Absent a more complete economic rejuvenation, the US will be unable to regain the credibility necessary to curb Beijing’s assertiveness.  Kwei-Bo Huang, a professor at National Chengchi University, emphasized increased participation in international organizations and agreements—such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement—as the key to Taiwan’s “survival.”  US support will be vital in this effort. 

George Washington University international affairs professor Robert Sutter used the Taiwanese debate over nuclear power as a case study to highlight the intensely partisan nature of its domestic politics.  This hyper-politicization of issues has caused fatigue among the Taiwanese and concern among American leaders—the irony here was noted—that partisan rivalries will prevent Taiwan from pursuing a coherent approach to critical economic and security issues. 

Peng Li, a University of Maryland Fulbright scholar visiting from Xiamen University in China, outlined Beijing’s gradualist approach to unification.  Beijing aims to establish a constructive political environment that will permit pragmatic solutions to specific problems in the short term and pave the way for a formal agreement on Taiwan’s status in the future.  He expressed concern that a return to power by Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) might derail this plan and urged the US to support Beijing’s efforts to develop a sustainable political dialogue with Taipei. 

Commentator Cynthia Watson, a professor at the National Defense University, underlined the incongruity between Beijing’s hope for slow, consistent progress toward unification and the Taiwan government’s inherently unpredictable democratic process.  She expressed doubt that even a full US economic recovery would result in a large injection of resources into American “rebalancing,” due to the current lack of domestic support for expanding foreign policy investment.  

In his keynote speech, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kin Moy affirmed the US’s “enduring friendship” with Taiwan and sought to dispel any notions that the relationship has deteriorated.  He cited close, ongoing U.S.-Taiwan cooperation on economic, security, and environmental issues.  Moy expressed support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, noting that the US had backed Taiwan’s membership in the WTO, as well as its attendance at the WHO’s 2009 World Health Assembly and the 2013 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) congress.  He said that enlarging the Trans Pacific Partnership requires consensus among existing members.  Taiwan will need to commit to further economic liberalization.  Moy emphasized that American “rebalancing” entails increased cooperation with both the Beijing and Taipei.  There is nothing inconsistent in strengthening ties with both governments.       

To begin the second panel discussion, entitled “Opportunities and Challenges in Cross-Strait Relations,” Chinese Culture University professor Chien-Min Chao outlined President Xi Jinping’s “pragmatic” approach to relations with Taiwan.  Xi is concentrating on consolidating and developing existing modes of economic and diplomatic cooperation.  Taiwan’s guest status at the ICAO congress is evidence of his flexibility.  Xi’s stance provides an opportunity for both trust-building and concrete progress on trade talks that should be embraced by Taiwan.  The Mainland could help deescalate tensions by easing its military build-up along the Taiwan Strait. 

Returning the discussion to Taiwan’s domestic politics, Taipei University professor Samuel Shiouh-Guang Wu said that the Mainland has adopted a more flexible attitude toward Taiwan in part because by demonstrating the economic benefits of closer cross-strait relations, Beijing hopes to short-circuit public support for the DPP.   DPP ascendance in Taiwan’s 2014 local elections or 2016 presidential election would introduce new uncertainty into cross-strait relations to the detriment of Taiwan’s interests, because Beijing might become more assertive if faced with a resistant DPP leadership.   It is therefore in Taiwan’s interest to maintain the status-quo through a “no surprises” approach to cross-strait diplomacy. 

Stimson Center fellow Alan Romberg acknowledged that Taiwan’s tumultuous domestic politics will continue, but both he and Tsinghua University professor Shulong Chu predicted a continuation of Beijing’s tough, patient (“economic first, political later, easy first, difficult later”) approach to Taiwan.  Like Peng Li, both forecast stable cross-strait relations focused on steadily developing Track II dialogue in preparation for future Track I talks.  Romberg noted an outside chance for a peace accord before 2016 if Beijing explicitly decouples such an agreement from the issue of Taiwan’s political status. 

Commentator Bernard Cole, a professor at National Defense University, closed by emphasizing the positive trends in cross-strait relations.  The increasing number of direct flights across the Taiwan Strait and the growing number of Taiwanese citizens on the Mainland indicate the degree to which economic and cultural ties have been strengthened, presaging gradual progress toward an eventual peaceful agreement on Taiwan’s status.


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