Don’t rely too heavily on present ambiguities
Taiwan seems to have been inundated recently with a series of acronyms and digits. First, there was the M503 flight route that China tried to launch unilaterally in January and that threatened to push civilian air traffic dangerously close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait.
Then came the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the debate over Taiwan’s membership in a Beijing-led investment organization, albeit one with a strong international pull, and the U.S. attitude toward such a move and whether it would factor into a TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) decision.
On April 1, a pair of U.S. Marine Corps F-18 fighter jets made an emergency landing in Tainan, citing engine trouble during a routine mission. Political pundits, military analysts and netizens alike all took a stab at deciphering the possible “political message” the United States was sending, and the possible recipient of said message.
According to a Washington Times report on Wednesday, military analyst Rick Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center argued that the landings, while unintended, “(do) give China a significant signal of U.S. resolve” in the region, considering the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s recent test flights of its H-6K bombers in the Western Pacific.
Legislators in Taiwan let their imaginations run wild yesterday. Despite repeated statements from Foreign Minister David Lin that the F-18s landed because of technical problems, Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Tsai Huang-liang ( ) said, “in a sensitive time like this, the matter is irregular.” He said that the U.S. wanted to reassert its stature in the region following recent developments.
Kuomintang Legislator Lin Yu-fang ( ) scoffed at Tsai’s speculation, but added that the incident with the F-18s showed that the U.S. still saw Taiwan as a trusted ally in the region, which he described as “heartwarming.”
Can we trust coincidences, even if we are seemingly surrounded by them?
The arrival of U.S. warplanes, even if they could have landed elsewhere, indicates that Taiwan continues to walk a tightrope when it comes to its triangular relations with China and the United States. After the confrontational diplomatic stance that shaped cross-strait relations for eight years during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, Ma Ying-jeou’s resolve to maintain the status quo under the policy of “No independence, no reunification and no use of force” seemed like a breath of fresh air.
But a relationship formed as much by ambiguities, such as the U.S. acknowledgment of Beijing’s “One China” principle, and its adherence to the Taiwan Relations Act, will always engender a high degree of speculation when it comes to intentions, be it President Obama’s “Asian pivot” or China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.”
While the American Institute in Taiwan sent its gratitude for Taiwan’s assistance in the matter regarding the F- 18s, is it merely confirming “a friend in need is a friend indeed?” Or is it also reminding Beijing that the Pacific region is still part of its backyard? Concurrently, is Taiwan’s application to the AIIB a message to the United States that it continues to value cross- strait amenity even if it overrides the “concerns” of its staunchest ally over China’s regional ambitions?
As always, ambiguities continue to serve an important role in R.O.C.-PRC-U.S. relations: they give an often convincing illusion that the status quo can and will remain the order of the day in the Taiwan Strait. However, we must continually strive to awaken from this illusion, reminding ourselves that the geopolitical circumstances in Asia are in flux due to China’s economic ascent and have rarely remained static. U.S. actions (or reactions) to China’s rise, whether they are colored by our recent perceptions of coincidence, are highly expected … even anticipated.
But perhaps what this alphabet soup of the M503, the AIIB and the two F-18s amounts to most is this: one should never confuse ambiguity with coincidence.