Main­tain­ing peace across Tai­wan Straits can ben­e­fit all

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

Tsai Ing-wen, can­di­date of the Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party, won Tai­wan’s lead­er­ship elec­tion on Satur­day. The elec­tions in Tai­wan have the po­ten­tial to lead to strains among the US, Chi­nese main­land and Tai­wan for the first time in over seven years.

Par­al­lel in­ter­ests in all three lead­er­ships do not fun­da­men­tally clash, leav­ing space for care­ful and cre­ative man­age­ment of the Tai­wan political tran­si­tion. But there is enough sus­pi­cion and mis­trust across the Tai­wan Straits that a vi­cious cir­cle of ac­tion and re­ac­tion can­not be ruled out and prob­a­bly should be sub­ject to ac­tive pol­icy preven­tion.

It is im­por­tant at the out­set to note that the pol­icy ob­jec­tives of all three sides in some way call for the main­te­nance of peace and sta­bil­ity across the Tai­wan Straits. For the US govern­ment, this should form the core of its pri­vate and pub­lic mes­sag­ing as events un­fold. Steadi­ness will be re­quired as both the Chi­nese main­land and Tai­wan will per­suadeWash­ing­ton to help each to re­strain or mol­lify the other. If the US does not grasp and es­tab­lish its own prin­ci­pled po­si­tion from the out­set, it risks en­trap­ment by events. That po­si­tion starts with the for­mal and al­most rit­ual ad­her­ence to the three Sino-US com­mu­niques and the Tai­wan Re­la­tions Act (TRA), but it may have to adapt quickly to chang­ing cir­cum­stances.

The Chi­nese main­land will look for pub­lic in­di­ca­tions that Tsai has taken se­ri­ously the main­land’s re­peated warn­ings that the ba­sis for con­tin­ued cross-Straits co­op­er­a­tion lies in an ac­knowl­edge­ment of the con­cept of One China, how­ever for­mu­lated.

It is at this junc­ture that US pol­i­cy­mak­ers will need to kick in. It is in the US in­ter­est that Tsai con­tinue the mod­er­ate, even con­ser­va­tive and re­as­sur­ing ap­proach to cross-Straits affairs that she adopted be­fore the elec­tion. Her pos­ture this time to­ward cross-Straits re­la­tions is markedly more con­struc­tive in terms of main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo than her am­bigu­ous stance in 2012, and this de­serves to be rec­og­nized.

Tsai’s re­vised pos­ture won her Amer­i­can ac­qui­es­cence to her can­di­dacy af­ter a visit toWash­ing­ton in 2015. That was some­thing she failed to achieve in her 2012 un­suc­cess­ful bid for the lead­er­ship. Wash­ing­ton seemed per­suaded, tem­po­rar­ily at least, that she had de­vel­oped safe hands to man­age cross-Straits pol­icy.

Some in the US and other cir­cles, in­clud­ing in Ja­pan and Tai­wan, ar­gue thatWash­ing­ton should seize the change in Tai­wan to raise the level of of­fi­cial deal­ings in US-Tai­wan re­la­tions, em­bed Tai­wan in the “re­bal­ance” to Asia, and pro­mote closer se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion among Ja­pan, the US, and Tai­wan.

That is an op­tion, but in light of the in­creas­ingly in­ter­de­pen­dent agen­das of the US and Chi­nese main­land, and the ex­treme sen­si­tiv­ity of is­sues in­volv­ing sovereignty for the Chi­nese, pur­su­ing such an op­tion would be fraught with costs dif­fi­cult to pre­dict or con­trol. For the Barack Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, on its way out and in search of a pos­i­tive legacy, this seems an un­likely choice.

The Chi­nese main­land will nat­u­rally have its own levers to try to in­flu­ence Tsai’s govern­ment. The main­land will have four months to sig­nal pub­licly or com­mu­ni­cate pri­vately warn­ings or in­duce­ments to shape Tsai’s cross-Straits pol­icy choices.

There are hints that Tsai’s team is pre­par­ing to man­age any such set­backs. They may seek US crit­i­cism of the moves. The best pub­lic US re­sponse is prob­a­bly to re­vert to a de­sire to see peace and sta­bil­ity main­tained in the re­gion and to re­peat the mantra of the com­mu­niqués and the TRA.

The Tai­wan elec­tion has al­ready caught the at­ten­tion of some of those run­ning to suc­ceed Obama. But on the whole, the Chi­nese main­land and Tai­wan are rel­a­tively sub­or­di­nate to theMid­dle East, the Iran nu­clear agree­ment, Rus­sia-East­ern Europe re­la­tions, and other hot but­ton is­sues in this US elec­tion. The Chi­nese main­land would be smart to re­mind it­self of that fact and con­tain its in­stincts ap­pro­pri­ately with re­spect to man­ag­ing the tran­si­tion with Tai­wan.

The au­thor is vice-pres­i­dent for stud­ies at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace.

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