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  • Washington-Taipei Relations at a Crossroads:Introduction
  • Gang Lin (bio) and Jacques deLisle (bio)

Elections of new leaders in Taiwan and the United States in 2016—and, less dramatically, the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the 2017 session of the National People's Congress in China—have changed the domestic landscapes that shape U.S.-Taiwan relations. The two elections brought to office leaders who are significantly different from their opposite party predecessors. In Taiwan, voters selected Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the candidate of the traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which last held power during 2000–2008—a period of chronic tension and occasional crises in cross-Strait relations. In the United States, Donald Trump came to office with palpable disdain for Washington's established ways and with a foreign policy and national security policy team that was sparse, unconventional, and strikingly thin in experience and expertise in Taiwan and cross-Strait policies. The approach of the first Party Congress heldfully [End Page 1] under Xi Jinping's leadership had triggered much speculation about possible changes in cross-Strait policy although, in the end, adjustments were limited to a marginally tougher line toward Taiwan (as well as striking indications of Xi's consolidation of power), but no major changes in Beijing's approach to cross-Strait issues.

These developments brought renewed uncertainty and, in turn, greater international attention to the Taiwan issue in general. Between 2008 and 2016, with Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) in power in Taiwan, cross-Strait relations were characterized by "peaceful development." As rapprochement proceeded and the crises that marked Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) tenure as Taiwan's leader receded, the Taiwan issue faced possible marginalization in Washington. Taiwan became a much less central and fraught factor in a U.S.-China relationship that had grown complex and increasingly beset by other areas of friction, many of them related to China's rising power.

On Taiwan policy, some analysts in the United States revived and adapted an old theme: that Taiwan soon would, or at least should, cease to be a strategic concern for the United States. Examples of strong forms of this view include Bruce Gilley's notion of the "Finlandization of Taiwan"—suggesting that the United States should seek to "promote long-term peace through closer economic, social, and political ties" between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland rather than "using Taiwan to balance the power of a rising China"; and Charles Glaser's argument that the United States should avoid conflicts with "a rising China by backing away from its commitments to Taiwan."1 Rapidly improving cross-Strait relations could make such assessments and prescriptions more credible.

From very different perspectives, other analysts pushed back, arguing that the United States should not "abandon Taiwan" because to do so would be contrary to U.S. international security interests and "values" commitments (to human rights and democracy). Proponents of this set of views include Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Bonnie Glaser, and Shelley Rigger.2 For these assessments, Taiwan's apparent or possible marginalization in U.S. policy after 2008 was a trajectory to be resisted.

With Tsai and then Trump coming to power, and with renewed tensions in cross-Strait relations and growing economic and strategic frictions between Beijing and Washington, questions about U.S.-Taiwan relations—and their interaction with cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations—came again to the fore: How much would the immediate future depart from this recent past? So far, evidence has been mixed. [End Page 2]

Tsai consistently pledged continuity and stability in her approach to cross-Strait relations and did not reprise the more provocative approach of the Chen Shui-bian years. Nonetheless, her position as a leader from the DPP, her refusal to adopt the 1992 Consensus and the one-China principle conditions set by Beijing, and various statements and actions that Beijing regarded as unacceptably pro-independence corresponded to rising frictions in cross-Strait relations. After his election, Trump and his team careened among strikingly different positions, including an unprecedented telephone call between the U.S. president-elect and Tsai; a statement that the long-standing...


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