Taiwan and the Rebalance

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City lights of Taipei, Taiwan Source: Flickr

by Lauren Dickey

Taiwan has been called an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” a “beacon of democracy” in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite such rhetorical framings and an acute awareness of the island’s geostrategic and political importance, Taiwan has had a heretofore underwhelming role in Washington’s rebalance to Asia. Under the leadership of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taipei, it is essential Taiwan finds its voice and role in support of the rebalance; and, more importantly, that Washington policymakers work with their counterparts in Taiwan to include the island in economic and security components of the ongoing rebalancing.

In a December 2014 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, polling of Taiwanese policymaking elite and business leaders suggests an optimistic, even hopeful, perception of the U.S. rebalance. Deepened economic ties and trade relations with the United States can bring benefits to Taiwanese from all walks of life; and U.S. leadership in Asia as a stabilizing presence is supported by both the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progress Party (DPP) and pro-mainland China Kuomintang (KMT) parties. Moreover, for Taiwanese politicians, the U.S. rebalance offers incentive for restructuring the priorities of the Taiwanese government. Seen most clearly in persistent attempts tomodernize the Taiwanese fighting force, despite declining defense budgets jeopardizing military preparedness, the Taiwanese military envisions a role for itself in the security component of the rebalance. Of course there is also the hope that deeper, closer ties with the United States—even if predominantly economic in nature—will further Taiwan’s footing at the international level, creating opportunities for the island to engage with other countries more on an informal, but still productive, basis.

Beyond these aspirations for how the U.S. rebalance can support and include Taiwan, there are those that remain concerned that Washington’s strategy will ultimately do more harm than good for Taiwan. Since Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008, Taipei has witnessed tremendous progress in cross-strait ties to Beijing. Before Ma took the helm of Taiwanese leadership, not even cross-strait trade and travel could happen directly; all goods and people going between the two sides of the strait were required to transit in Hong Kong or elsewhere. In addition to the opening of direct linkages, the Ma Ying-jeou years have also ushered in closer economic ties, including the 2010 signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). Yet recent months have seen far less progress in cross-strait rapprochement. Some blame the lack of strategic flexibility under Chinese President Xi Jinping toward Taiwan; others note the shift of domestic politics in Taiwan and widespread concerns of increased vulnerability caused by economic interdependence with mainland China; and still others blame the rebalance for exacerbating tensions between the United States and China, leaving little room for deepening the cross-strait relationship.

Leadership in Taipei can only maintain strategic ambiguity for so long. It may be strategically sound for Taiwan to avoid public, or official, comments on the U.S. rebalance to Asia, but a failure to openly discuss the role Taipei wants to play in the rebalance will come at the expense of closer ties with both Washington and Beijing. While Taiwan is eyeing participation in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) with keen interest, other elements of Taipei’s support for the rebalance remain unclear. The rebalance creates an irreplaceable opportunity for Taiwan to become more involved in the Asia-Pacific region, giving the island a voice in regional affairs it may otherwise struggle to acquire of its own accord.

It is time the government in Taipei actively and openly supports the rebalance, through smart, fiscally sound military modernization effortsand requisite economic reforms. President Ma Ying-jeou owes it to the Taiwanese population to delineate a clearer strategy for the island vis-à-vis the United States and mainland China, honoring his pledge to support a future for the island as shaped by public consent. A Taiwan that knows what role it will play in the rebalance, and a Washington that is committed to supporting Taipei under the legacies of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, bolsters stability and the Asian regional order. Taiwan has mattered and will continue to matter in the U.S. rebalance to Asia—the island is poised to be an important partner and should act and be treated as such.