Whoever wins the US presidential election on November 3 will need to find a way to reconstruct dialogues with Beijing concerning Taiwan, according to US diplomatic experts, both to manage “mutual mistrust” and pave the way for cooperation on areas of common interest.
The debate over Taiwan policy has grown louder in the US this year. As China has ramped up military drills and rhetoric about reuniting the self-governed island with the mainland, Washington has warmed its relation with Taipei by sending high-level officials on visits and approving armed sales there worth a potential US$1.8 billion.
In a panel on the US 2020 election on Thursday organised by the South China Morning Post, Evan Medeiros, who was President Barack Obama’s top adviser on the Asia Pacific, said that one deficiency of President Donald Trump’s China policy has been to treat dialogue as if it’s a waste of assets, costly and complicated.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
Until the start of this year, he said, Trump had barely discussed Taiwan, partly because he sought to avoid issues that might derail the phase one trade deal he and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He signed in January.
“China is using its capability to signal its intentions more than anything else – in large part because there is so little dialogue or no dialogue between Beijing and Taipei, and there is very little dialogue between Washington and Beijing,” Medeiros said.
“Under the Biden administration, there is going to be a desire to recalibrate, not reset, a relationship with China. Accepting that strategic competition is probably the right frame for the relationship, but the question is how do you compete, and ensure the competition is not mutually exclusive with dialogues and cooperation.
“You can and should be able to talk to Chinese, and cooperate where our interests intersect, most obviously on Covid, climate change, North Korea.”
Rorry Daniels, who has years of experience of organising unofficial contacts and activities – known as backchannel diplomacy or “Track II” – said that at the moment there was an erosion of diplomacy to solve problems and a lack of willingness both in Beijing and Washington to listen and to consider how they can use informal dialogues to advance their interests.
“The complaint that has often been heard, even before the Trump administration came to power, is that you talk talk talk to China, nothing happens. But I think that really negates the value of dialogue in managing mutual mistrust,” said Daniels, who is deputy project director of the Forum on Asia-Pacific Security (FAPS) at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
“If you are going to avoid a cold-war situation or even just manage a cold-war situation with China, we are going to have a dialogue that leads nowhere and only manages mutual mistrust,” he said.
“Our short-term challenge is how do we manage mutual mistrust; the long-term challenge is how do we build our considerable common interest.”
William Owens, who served as vice-chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration, argued that the best way forward – while very difficult during this period of friction – would be for Taiwan to accept that it’s part of Greater China with assurances from Beijing that the island would enjoy its current system and freedoms indefinitely. But the practicality of such a proposal is still up for debate.
Owens also questioned the wisdom of the recent US arms sales to Taiwan, asserting that it’s a result of an “ill-informed Congress” influenced by “the military-industrial complex”.
The latest arms sale package includes 135 AGM-84H cruise missiles and 11 truck-based rocket launchers with a striking range of more than 270km (168 miles).
Medeiros said he believed that the arms sales were to mainly improve Taiwan’s resilience and signal to Beijing that the US sees its interest in Taiwan in broader regional stability.
“Too often, Beijing believes that it just cares far more about Taiwan than the US does, not understanding that if the US were to do nothing in the face of aggression against Taiwan, that US East Asia strategy will just collapse,” Medeiros said.
“The fundamental policy challenge for the US is making sure its policy toward Taiwan is driven by the US interest and what makes sense for US-Taiwan relation, as opposed to treating Taiwan as a card to play in the broader accelerating US-China strategic competition.
“It’s going to be a challenge for policymakers in Taiwan going forward.”
More from South China Morning Post:
This article After election, US dialogue with China on Taiwan must resume, analysts say first appeared on South China Morning Post