For U.S., Taiwan Vote Changes Calculus Over ‘One China’

By Andrew Browne, The Wall Street Journal | January 19, 2016
TAIPEI—No dogma is more important to Beijing than “One China,” the concept that Taiwan is a part of a single Chinese nation—just temporarily estranged.

America and much of the rest of the world acquiesce to that position, denying the reality that Taiwan has set its course as an independent state. Last weekend’s vote, in which the Taiwanese electorate overwhelming endorsed a party that rejects Beijing’s “One China” formula, confirmed the direction in the most emphatic way to date. That not only puts China in a bind, but the U.S. too.

Like it or not, the political equation has changed, forcing Washington to look at Taiwan in a different light.

To be sure, an American challenge to the “One China” doctrine is unthinkable. It’s the one move that could realistically provoke a war between the world’s two strongest powers. Yet some diplomats and scholars think that a postelection Taiwan may get more sympathetic treatment in Washington.

“Taiwan occupies a bit of a different space now,” says Donald Rodgers, a professor at Austin College in Texas, who was in Taiwan observing the elections.

He predicts the U.S. will be somewhat less worried about offending China by opening more direct channels of communication with Taiwan on issues from security to the environment and health. Such dialogue must now be conducted in a cloak-and-dagger style lest it suggests state-to-state relations. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan routinely incur Beijing’s wrath.

Even before the elections in which the Democratic Progressive Party captured the presidency and, for the first time, the legislature, the pretense of “One China” was getting harder to sustain.

Taiwan has grown into a stable democracy. This was, after all, the sixth presidential election since the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, lifted martial law that had been in force since 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated armies arrived at the end of the Chinese civil war. The first was in 1996.

More and more people on the island have become convinced they live in a sovereign state, not a “renegade province” of China.

The last time the Democratic Progressive Party held the presidency, from 2000 to 2008, Washington didn’t face such a dilemma.

Then-president Chen Shui-bian was a pro-independence firebrand who needlessly provoked China, creating endless headaches for Washington policy makers. Besides, his party didn’t control parliament.

Tsai Ing-wen, the incoming president-elect, is a very different personality. She’s a cautious lawyer who has promised “no surprises” in relations with China, and that’s won her a degree of trust in Washington. Like the vast majority of Taiwanese, she’s in favor of the status quo, which essentially means shelving the whole vexed issue of independence.

Why make a big fuss about it? Soon, she’ll be presiding over an island that fits almost any definition of a state.

The final blow to “One China” may have been the electoral destruction of the Kuomintang, which once ruled all of China and for decades regarded Taiwan as a temporary exile. That governing mind-set has changed. Yet a belief in “One China” clings to life within its ranks, and China did everything it could to encourage the faith by signing more than 20 trade pacts with outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou in hopes that economic integration would lead to the realization of “One China.”

The Kuomintang paid for these agreements with a crushing electoral defeat; ordinary Taiwanese saw them as a sellout. The party may never come back.

If Washington, for pragmatic reasons, can’t simply dismiss “One China” as an anachronism, a relic of the days when cross-Strait relations were defined by the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party, it might not feel such a need to indulge Beijing on the matter either. (As a matter of policy, America does not support independence for Taiwan.)

Mark Harrison, a Taiwan expert at the University of Tasmania, says that Washington’s response to the elections is likely to be conditioned by its growing strategic competition with China, highlighted by its “pivot” to Asia. Mounting political repression in China, in contrast to Taiwan’s thriving democracy, will also factor in.

“Washington is clearly in a different mode,” he says. “It doesn’t feel such a need to accommodate Beijing.”

Fears of Chinese economic sanctions to try to force Ms. Tsai onto the “One China” track are receding in Taiwan. Still less do people worry about military measures. The general sense is that Chinese president Xi Jinping has more pressing issues on his mind, like his sinking economy, and so long as Ms. Tsai doesn’t agitate openly for independence he’ll let things slide.

Washington is treading cautiously. A U.S. State Department statement congratulated Ms. Tsai on her win but noted America’s “profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability.”

Still, Taiwan’s 23 million people have unambiguously passed their verdict on “One China.” America won’t back them, but it can’t ignore them.


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