Are US Think Tanks Overreaching on Taiwan?

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Tuesday, September 26, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

US think tanks, societies, and organizations have recently not been shy or hesitant to get involved in Taiwan matters; they seem to do so with an apparent purpose.

Earlier this month, Simona Grano, a senior fellow on Taiwan at New York based Asia Society penned a lengthy and thorough primer on Taiwan’s election next month. In her primer, Grano noted that Washington had “reservations” about all four (now three after Terry Gou dropped out) candidates for the presidency.

With these reservations, one senses a clear change and expansion of purpose from the Asia Society. Originally formed in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller, its main aim was to explain Asia to Americans. Today it contains a Center for China Analysis and seems bent on providing Asia (and here Taiwan) with feedback from Washington.

Certainly, the report gave a clear picture of how presidential and legislative elections work in Taiwan, but it came with the hint that Taiwan should be more selective in its choice of candidates. This veiled another matter; namely, that while It may be well and good for the US to hide behind “strategic ambiguity” in regard to its support for Taiwan, but Taiwan on the other hand should keep its choices more directly in line with US policy interests.

Among the report’s expressed concerns and fears were that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate William Lai might “deviate from the moderate policy” of his predecessor. As for the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) candidate, New Taipei City mayor Hou You-yi, the report dredged up old “ractopamine” fears on whether he might impose similar meat bans as existed in the days of former president Ma Ying-jeou.

Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) Chairman and candidate Ko Wen-je got off with simply being branded an inexperienced “wild card” as was independent candidate Hon Hai Precision Industry Co founder Terry Gou, who was seen as aligning more with the pan-blue camp.

With such subtlety, these Asia Society remarks stood in sharp contrast to those at a different gathering, one previously hosted by the National Council of US China Relations (NCUSCR).

Only a few months earlier, that organization had not only welcomed Ma but it also let him speak unchallenged and at length on the so-called “1992 consensus.”

That Ma could do such unchallenged revealed a credibility gap and a certain disconnect that too often exists between what happens in Taiwan and how US institutions often interpret and react.

There never was a so-called “1992 consensus” between Taiwan and China. In 2006, former Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) chairman, Su Chi, admitted that he invented that phrase in the year 2000. Why? For starters, that was the tell-tale year that the DPP first won Taiwan’s presidency, a fact that cast a foreboding shadow on the KMT’s dream of a unified China.

And yet, despite that phrase being a known invention, Ma was allowed to continually repeat it as gospel truth throughout his trip.

What Ma was referring to of course was a meeting in Hong Kong between China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation in November 1992.

Most important to the meeting was the practicality of how Taiwan and China would refer to each other. They settled on “one China, with respective interpretations.”

Then-president, Lee Teng-hui, scotched all this by insisting that all negotiations must be done on the basis of “state to state relations,” a position that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and some KMT members still refuse to accept.

In keeping with his recent invitation, Ma of course took advantage of his platform and went on to make the following three key points.

First, Taiwan/China relations are different from those of warring Ukraine and Russia where both are seen as separate nations. Taiwan and China must be seen as part of the same whole.

Second, Taiwan is not like Hong Kong; i.e. it should not be described in terms of “one country two systems.” Ma emphasized again the KMT’s legitimacy as a government with its own constitution. And while the Republic of China may not control the majority of land in China, it is still a legitimate government. This is what always justifies the KMT’s place at the table.

Third, Ma emphasized that Taiwan should never be considered as “independent.” Like the CCP, Ma and some KMT dread the “I” word. Both fear Taiwan’s de facto independence being recognized by the world.

In Ma’s US talk before the NCUSCR, the host, Stephen Orlins, did raise one challenging question that put Ma on his back foot. After Ma had labored the point about the importance of the “1992 consensus,” Orlins pointed out that since Taiwan is a democracy, if Lai were to be elected president next month, would that not be a rejection of the “1992 consensus”?

Ma danced around the question, not wanting to accept that the democratic choice of the public could destroy the KMT’s talking point.

The Asia Society’s mention of the “1992 consensus” in its election primer was that it was simply “controversial.” As a result, we have two recent US commentaries on Taiwanese policies and positions.

Perhaps it is time for Taiwanese think tanks to return the favor and begin raising specific questions on the US’s “undecided” position on Taiwan.

At present the US offers a Visa Waiver program for citizens of 38 countries; Taiwan is one of them. Citizens of China however are denied this; they must apply for B1/B2 visas.

That’s a good starting point. Who should be invited to talk on it?