Beijing should be more flexible with Taiwan or face blame if cross-strait ties worsen, says former US diplomat

By backing Taiwanese president into a corner, Communist leadership risks putting Sino-US relations under pressure

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2016, 11:29am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 November, 2016, 11:00pm

Beijing should show more flexibility and creativity in its dealings with the new Taiwanese president, which would help ease strained cross-strait ties and benefit overall Sino-US relations, a leading US scholar says.

Richard Bush, a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (Washington’s de facto diplomatic office on the island) and director of Brookings Institution’s Centre for East Asian Policy Studies, warned that cross-strait relations could worsen if Beijing and Taiwan failed to resolve the impasse over the “1992 consensus”.

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Since Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen became Taiwan’s president in May, cross-strait ties have “deteriorated to a small degree”, Bush said.

“And it is possible, but not inevitable, they could deteriorate to a much deeper level.”

Bush warned that if relations worsened, most people in Taiwan and the United States would probably blame Beijing rather than Tsai.

“So far the US believes Tsai has handled [cross-strait ties] pretty well. I suggest that up until this point, we probably think Tsai has been more restrained and creative than the mainland side. But we’ll have to see,” he said.

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The 1992 consensus is a tacit agreement reached in 1992 with Taiwan’s then Kuomintang administration, allowing both sides to hold talks as long as both support the ‘one China’ principle – which each side can interpret as it likes. Beijing views the consensus as the bottom line in relations with Taiwan.

Unlike her KMT predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai and her independence-leaning DPP government have so far refused to explicitly acknowledge the consensus.

Beijing has said that without the acknowledgement, there would be no cross-strait talks.

That decision had an immediate effect on Taipei’s international ties: in September, the International Civil Aviation Organisation denied Taipei a place at its triennial assembly in Montreal, Canada, and barred Taiwanese journalists from covering the event.

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“We are saying each side should be flexible, restrained, creative and patient. We said nothing to suggest Tsai is not. The fact that we say both should suggest that the mainland could do more,” Bush said, adding that the rift over the ICAO was by no means a goodwill gesture.

He added that although it was understandable that the mainland did not trust Tsai, demanding that she say the exact words Beijing wanted to hear was not the only way to build trust and to reassure itself about Tsai’s intentions.

You take a small step and the other side takes another ... That fact that you do it incrementally means nobody is taking an excessive risk in any point of the process
Richard Bush

“Beijing knows how to do things in a nuanced and ambiguous way if it wants to. It knows how to build trust incrementally rather than all at once. Why does it get to make all the demands while Tsai is not making any demands?

“I understand they may not trust her. But Tsai and people in Taiwan have reasons not to trust the mainland. So this is a mutual process. But the sense you get from Beijing is it’s all one-sided and she has to make concessions.”

Bush said that apart from exchanging words and statements, both sides could also consider taking incremental steps through actions that would progressively show more goodwill.

“One can also do it through actions. You take a small step and the other side takes another. You take a slightly bigger step and the other side take a slightly bigger one. That fact that you do it incrementally means nobody is taking an excessive risk in any point of the process,” he said.

He added that Beijing might be considering taking further punitive steps such as luring away some of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies.

Amitai Etzioni, a China expert at George Washington University, suggested in September in a hearing at the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs that Washington should make an explicit commitment to maintain the status quo of Taiwan, which he believed would significantly reduce tensions between the US and China.

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Noting that both the US and China had already demonstrated considerable self-restraint in the matter of Taiwan, “these measures of self-restraint should be made more explicit by letting it be known that so long as China does not use force to coerce Taiwan to become part of China, the United States will continue to refrain from treating Taiwan as an independent state”, Etzioni said.

Bush disagreed, saying that while both Beijing and Taipei were important to Washington’s East Asia policy, there was no point in the US becoming actively involved at this point.

“Taiwan is the silent beneficiary of the rebalance because it benefits from an active US role in East Asia. It is also the silent contributor to the rebalance by sustaining a decent level of relations with the mainland that removes one potential flashpoint in US-China relations,” he said.

“The US involvement will depend on our assessment of who has caused the deterioration or who has contributed more to the deterioration,” Bush said. “I see no sign that we are exerting any kind of pressure on Taiwan to make concessions that Tsai thinks she should not make.”

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Another China expert, Robert Sutter, also a professor at George Washington University, said Taiwan was Beijing’s “corest core interest” and the most directly threatened target of the mainland’s military intimidation.

“Taipei always seeks stronger support from the US but also recognises that serious friction in US-Chinese relations is more likely than not to have serious negative consequences for Taiwan,” Sutter said.

With the steady development of cross-strait tie under former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, who tried cautiously not to threaten the mainland’s fundamental interests, US-Taiwan ties also improved.

“I do think relations with Taiwan are as good now as they’ve ever been, including in the security realm, considering the overlaps of our interests are quite large. The state of our relations with Taiwan is really a function of cross-strait relations,” Bush said.