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Bond Between US, Taiwan Strong Despite Mutual Frustrations

While relations between Beijing and Taipei remain tense and stalemated, Taiwan also is seeing stress in its traditionally close alliance with the United States. Officials in the U.S. government have made no secret of their frustration with what they see as provocative needling of China by Taiwan's president.

Although the United States switched diplomatic recognition of the Chinese government from the nationalists in Taiwan to the communists in Beijing in 1979, ties between Washington and Taipei have remained strong. But that relationship may be getting a bit frayed, with U.S. officials in the last two months openly expressing frustration with actions of Taiwan's independence-leaning President Chen Shui-bian.

In recent months, Mr. Chen has decided to suspend the commission responsible for working toward the eventual reunification with China. He also proposed amending the constitution to include changing the island's name from the "Republic of China" to "Taiwan."

This is a provocative flag to China that the democratically ruled island may be intent on pursuing formal independence from the communist mainland. Beijing has repeatedly warned it will act - by force if necessary - if Taiwan fails to work toward reunification.

This has put the United States in a difficult position and the State Department has told the Chen government it does not want to see "anymore surprises."

While Washington supports the so-called One China policy, it also is obligated to help Taiwan defend itself if attacked by the mainland. The United States has repeatedly counseled both Beijing and Taipei to avoid doing anything to unilaterally change the status quo.

So when China raised the alarm over President Chen's recent independence rhetoric, the Bush administration - according to Heritage Foundation senior research fellow John Tkacik - was quick to pressure Taiwan.

"Consequently the United States goes to Taiwan and says 'You guys, button it up. We don't want a war and you guys are going to cause a war,'" he said.

Lin Chia-lung, the secretary-general of Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), says the president has been compelled to take a more independent stance because the United States has been distracted the past several years with its anti-terrorism campaign and the war in Iraq, while China is getting more powerful.

"So China has seized this chance to steal away the American influence in the Pacific region and expand its power," said Lin. "So we have to adapt to the new situation by adopting more flexible strategies."

China has also been quickly building up its military might - including positioning up to 700 missiles aimed at Taiwan across the narrow strait.

The Heritage Foundation's Tkacik agrees that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, and other crises outside East Asia, have meant the White House has little time or patience for the China-Taiwan issue.

"The president of the United States gave the order that he did not want a China 'In' box," he said. "And I don't know who to blame, but somebody told the president, well, the way to keep Taiwan under control is to 'whack it around', 'slap it around' occasionally."

But the leader of Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang, Ma Ying-jeou, says it is Mr. Chen who is responsible for souring relations with the United States - the island's biggest supporter - by threatening to relight the explosive independence fuse.

"The president should have understood that very well. Our relations with the United States are so important we should not consider it a trivial matter," said Ma.

Ma, who is also mayor of Taipei, and viewed as the front-runner to capture the presidency in 2008, is spending this week in the United States meeting with U.S. officials and giving speeches in major cities.

"One area that we believe [to which] should be attached a lot of importance is to repair the damaged relationship - mutual trust - across the Pacific Ocean," he said.

However, Ma will also have some explaining to do in the United Sates. Another irritant in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is a weapons package Washington wants to sell to Taipei. The $11 billion deal has been delayed since 2001, in part because the opposition Kuomintang says the weapons are too expensive and do not meet the island's defense needs.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, testifying in a congressional hearing last month, lamented Taipei's apparent lack of cooperation with the United States in modernizing the island's military.

Despite expressions of exasperation in both Taipei and Washington, the influence of the United States in Taiwan remains strong. Many of Taiwan's political and business leaders were educated in America and most of the island's large companies do business there. The United States is also Taiwan's second-largest export market behind mainland China.

The dean of international studies at Tamkang University, Tai Wan-chin, says those ties cannot be discounted even in times of mutual frustration between Taipei and Washington.

"Taiwan's long-term relation with the United States is not just limited to political and military. The cultural relations are very profound," said Tai. "So American influence is not only hard power, but soft power. The Americans' influence in Taiwan is very pervasive."

But the DPP's Secretary-General Lin says Washington is giving communist China a free pass to expand while failing to back the democratic government in Taiwan.

"The international community should not have different standards to criticize Taiwan's leadership in deepening our democracy while tolerating China's move to expand its military power to become a hegemon in the Asia-Pacific region," said Lin.

On Saturday, Taiwan President Chen took his policy of confronting China to the streets, when he told tens of thousands of anti-China demonstrators that only Taiwan's 23 million people would decide the island's sovereignty, not the people of the mainland. Such statements make it clear he and his supporters seem little bothered by signs of frustration in Washington, or anger in China.