Saturday, March 14, 2009

Endgame: Romberg/Bush Response to Sutter

Richard Bush, longtime US government Taiwan specialist, and Alan Romberg, longtime China and Taiwan scholar, have teamed up to answer Robert Sutter's most recent piece on Cross strait relations, which I blogged on a few weeks back. Bush's views on Taiwan are crucial because his name is frequently mentioned as a likely successor to Steve Young here at AIT in Taipei.

Article follows, my comments in brackets.


“Cross-Strait Moderation and the United States” – A Response to Robert Sutter
by Richard Bush and Alan D. Romberg
Richard Bush ( is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of its Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. Alan Romberg ( is a distinguished fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

In his recent article, “Cross-Strait Moderation and the United States – Policy Adjustment Needed” (PacNet #17, March 5, 2009) Robert Sutter has made the useful observation that changes occurring between the PRC and Taiwan may have significant implications for United States interests. Therefore, he argues, those changes must be clearly understood, not only by policy-makers but also the public, and, if necessary, Washington should study and take compensatory steps.

There is no question that significant change is occurring in cross-Strait relations, as part of the larger story of China’s return to great-power status. But we have a somewhat different perspective on what is going on and what the U.S. should do about it.

First, the goal of the United States regarding the Taiwan Strait for over 50 years has not been, as Sutter asserts, “maintaining a balance of power and influence in the Taiwan area favorable to Taiwan and U.S. interests.” The goal since the mid-1950s has been the maintenance of peace and stability in the Strait, including through the peaceful resolution of issues between Beijing and Taipei. Maintaining a balance of power and influence has been a means to that end, and not a trivial one. But it is not the only way that Washington has pursued its underlying goal. Diplomacy is another means. Fostering a good relationship with Beijing has been another. Encouraging cross-Strait cooperation is yet another. The point here is that we should not confuse means and ends.

U.S. actions during the Chen Shui-bian administration demonstrated this approach at work. Of course, China’s growing military power provided a context, but the key challenge was the danger that the deepening antagonism between Chen and Beijing could, through miscalculation, result in a conflict that would involve the United States. Such an outcome would have been fundamentally at odds with our goal of promoting peace and preventing war and highly damaging to U.S. strategic national interests. The Bush administration then used diplomacy to reduce the chance of conflict.

President Ma’s initiatives toward Beijing since he took office almost a year ago, and Beijing’s positive response, have been a boon to U.S. interests because they can reduce the mutual fear that has poisoned cross-Strait relations for the last 15 years. Sutter may be correct that the U.S. executive branch has not yet made the case why recent developments are salutary, but that is a fixable problem. Moreover, although Washington has endorsed the improvements in cross-Strait relations, it will also improve its own relations with Taiwan, including in the security realm.

Sutter’s focus on a power-and-influence balance shifting in Beijing’s direction may obscure as much as it reveals. To be sure, China’s capabilities are growing and its neighbors throughout East Asia must address that trend. But the mere creation of capabilities does not mean that they will or can be used – nor that efforts to do so would be unopposed. Sutter’s call for a review of policy grows out of the assumption that the U.S. would not be willing to take an effective stand against PRC coercion or worse against Taiwan. We find little reason to make that assumption.[Actually, when you read the tone of this piece, Washington's approval of Ma Ying-jeou, and its recent cooperation with Beijing to squelch Chen Shui-bian and install Ma Ying-jeou in Taipei, it is easy to see why Sutter, along with many others, is worried that Washington isn't going to stand effectively against PRC coercion. Washington has, in fact, been actively helping PRC coercion. Where are our F-16s? -- MT] Hence, Sutter’s concern about reaction in Japan strikes us as misplaced, as is his call for consideration of a U.S. mediating role, which he raises on the assumption that there is now “greater U.S. acceptance of China’s powerful influence over Taiwan.”[Once again, US policymakers treat Japan with complacency. One day they wake up to find that Japan is not their father's little brother anymore. -- MT]

Moreover, while “demonstrating resolve” to respond to China’s growing capability may be necessary in some cases, it will not be in others.

There is in Sutter’s analysis a lurking fear that the mainland’s power will lead to PRC intimidation and Taiwan submission. We cannot rule out that the people of Taiwan will someday decide that unification on terms dictated by Beijing is an acceptable outcome. But the odds of that are not high because Taiwan has resources that will encourage PRC restraint. As with the U.S., the Chinese accumulation of power is a means to an end. That end is the resolution of the dispute that has divided the two sides of the Strait for 60 years, and a heavy-handed exercise of PRC power is likely to be counter-productive. Contrary to Sutter’s apparent assumption that such a coercive course will appeal to Beijing, in fact the undesirability of trying that approach in terms of achieving its objectives is widely recognized on the mainland.[Here euphemism reaches levels that are unnecessary and ridiculous. China's goal is not "resolution of the dispute." It is annexation of Taiwan. China is not accumulating power to resolve the dispute but to coerce or forcibly annex Taiwan. Of course such a coercive course will appeal to Beijing -- it is the only one that will work! If China did not threaten to murder Taiwanese wholesale and plunge East Asia into war, Taiwan would already be independent. Sutter is dead on, Bush and Romberg are deploying rhetoric to obscure this reality. -- MT]

The first and foremost resource at Taiwan’s disposal is its democratic system. Ma Ying-jeou won power in important measure through the appeal that reassurance of and expanded cooperation with China would better guarantee the island’s prosperity, international dignity, and security.[But the only reason Ma could make that appeal to security is because the PRC threatens Taiwan militarily. KMT success hinges on PRC coercion. -- MT] It remains an open question whether Beijing will be willing to make the sort of concessions that prove Ma’s case with respect to dignity and security. That is its choice, and Sutter is skeptical that Beijing will comply, unless Taiwan threatens to take “a different international and military path.” (It is also an open question whether expanding cross-Strait economic ties will bolster the island’s prosperity amid a global economic crisis).[This latter part is completely lucid and intelligent. it's so rare to see any commentator mentioning the proposition that closer economic ties will not be good for Taiwan. Kudos to Bush and Romberg.-- MT]

What is not open to question is that Taiwan voters have the clear option of punishing Ma and the KMT if his promise is not realized or if they believe that Beijing’s terms, rather than meeting their aspirations, create political, security and economic vulnerabilities. While Beijing should not fear the give-and-take of a robust democratic system in Taiwan, what it should fear is that its failure to cooperate with Ma on these issues will bring back to power a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that is potentially in a “fundamentalist’ mode that some in the party still favor and that would carry with it the potential for a replay of 2002-2008. It is the possibility of that outcome that is the most powerful instrument to encourage PRC moderation and flexibility. [I think the KMT has nothing to worry about in the elections irrespective of PRC behavior. The legislature has been a disgrace for decades now, but the public keeps returning the same people to power, and the new changes ensure KMT control of the legislature for decades to come. Ma Ying-jeou may be unpopular now for selling out the island's sovereignty and for fumbling on the economy, but soon the cabinet will be replaced and a new, more election-oriented group will come in, and Ma will win again in 2012. Nor do I consider the vote collection and counting immune to manipulation, if that becomes necessary to ensure a Ma victory.

I think Beijing is aware of all this, and knows that its behavior is irrelevant. It may toss us a bone on the WHA, which the US foreign policy establishment and US media will duly report as a great breakthrough in Beijing's consideration of the people of Taiwan. And don't forget, the US is certain to be supporting Ma as the election of 2012 approaches. Bottom line is, if democracy here becomes a factor in preventing annexation, the KMT will attempt to reduce that threat. It is not for nothing that party heavyweights repeatedly invoke Singapore in their public discussions.

Note also how the invocation of democracy and the Constitution as issues that may block annexation subtly absolves the US of responsibility. -- MT

There is another way that Taiwan’s democracy will discourage preemptive capitulation. That is, for some sort of unification to occur, it must have the very broad consent of the Taiwan public. A change in the legal status of the Taipei government, which unification under any terms would entail, will require amendments to the ROC Constitution, which in turn requires a three-fourths vote in the Legislative Yuan and a super-majority in a referendum. Although the DPP was defeated in the last elections, it still commands significant support – at this point, more than enough support to block any constitutional change. China will have to be more creative than it has been so far if it wishes to foster a broad consensus on the island for continuing improvement in cross-Strait relations and, eventually, some sort of unification.[I think it would have been more correct to note that few people want annexation, whether they vote Blue or Green. The DPP does not have a monopoly on not wanting to be part of China! But really, the KMT has shown no sign of willingness to submit cross-strait talks to public oversight. Do you really think a little thing like the law and Constitution will get in their way? China does not have to be creative at all, especially with the US openly supporting the KMT. It merely has to continue the pressure and look forward to the KMT dumping Taiwan in its lap.-- MT]

Taiwan can also fortify its position by strengthening the fundamental pillars of its security. These include an internationally competitive economy with strong multinational corporations; an effective, two-party political system; a modest military deterrent; sensible diplomacy; and a strong relationship with the U.S. These are not easy tasks but they are not impossible. Accomplishing them will help ensure that Taiwan is not without power of its own. [If you guys in the US wanted an effective two-party system, why did you spend the last two elections hacking on one party and supporting the other? If you want us to have a modest military deterrant, why did you play a big role in screwing up our special arms purchase? Where are our F-16s. D'oh. -- MT]

The PRC does have a stronger economy and a stronger military. But those do not guarantee that Beijing will achieve its Taiwan goal, and certainly not that it will be able to do so through intimidation and coercion. The power it still lacks is the political appeal to the Taiwan public. Reassurance of the mainland has its risks, but it also has the advantage of reducing the probability of war, and of laying a foundation for a cross-Strait relationship on terms acceptable to both sides, which is the goal not just of the United States but Taiwan and the PRC as well.


It is a common complaint on this blog, but the way the Bush/Romberg piece describes DPP foreign policy shows that US thinkers, at least publicly, are repeating their own propaganda in their internal debates. During the time that Chen was operating in "fundamentalist mode", which they identify as 2002-2008, the DPP government negotiated agreements for direct charter flights, student exchanges, tourism, informal police exchanges, asked for peace talks repeatedly, and so on. My readers have all heard this before, so I won't bore you with the full list. It was China, not the DPP, that was intransigent and fundamentalist in these talks. That will never find its way into an Establishment piece on Taiwan, though.

The use of the term "fundamentalist" to describe Chen Shui-bian and the DPP was almost painful in its irony, because at the same time this came out, China's Foreign Minister Yang was at CSIS complaining in the usual intransigent, blustering, violent Chinese way:
Here I want to stress that no matter how the situation across the Taiwan Strait may evolve, we will never waiver in our commitment to the one China principle and will never compromise our opposition to “Taiwan independence”, “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”.
In other words, if you insist that you will kill people to annex an island you have never owned, and plunge the entire East Asian region into war, and repeatedly aver in public that you will never compromise on this colonial mission, you are a great statesman who will be feted in Washington. If you negotiate for Taiwan while protecting its sovereignty, but on a flexible and pragmatic basis that pursues a wide range of contacts, you are a fundamentalist.

Go figure.

Appropo is Jean-Michael Cole's piece in the Taipei Times yesterday, warning the Taiwanese populace......
For if this is allowed to proceed unchecked, Taiwanese could wake up one day and find themselves in a situation where their worries about a sagging economy or falling stocks are nothing more than a minor headache compared with the new challenges they face. The question is: Does this nation seek to react when it might be too late, or will it seek to be proactive and parry the blows as they come?

The Ma administration has displayed worrying signs of incompetence, while within the KMT there are a number of unaccountable individuals with close ties to Beijing whose motives bode ill for the future of Taiwan. This is a dangerous mix that competent CCP members are sure to exploit to the fullest and with total disregard for the views of ordinary Taiwanese.

The time has arrived for the Taiwanese middle class to awaken from its slumber and take the destiny of their country in their own hands. There is no room for rampant defeatism or the sense of powerlessness that seems to have installed itself like cosmic dust on the shoulders of Taiwanese. Real leaders, anger, a fighting spirit — this is what the situation calls for and only Taiwanese can find the means to breach the pan-green, pan-blue divide and get the message across.
Judging from the tone and points of the Bush/Romberg piece, it cannot come soon enough. And yet, Jim Mann has argued in The China Fantasy that the Chinese middle class will ally with the authoritarian state to protect its wealth and status. Don't be surprised if the KMT attempts to cut a similar deal with our local middle classes. In essence, that's what 6-3-3 was.....

Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...

Man, Bush is an ass. In his piece, not once did he mention growing, irrational Chinese nationalism. Can he spend some time reading what Chinese in China and in the US say about Taiwan? What they say about the "Han Chinese" "race" and "motherland" and "historical mission"?

Why isn't China called out for excluding Taiwan from the WHO, the UN, etc? Just because it happens all the time doesn't make it right. And he also has a faulty memory--Chen opened up Taiwanese investment into China versus the previous KMT government.

If China had a sophisticated sense of the fluidity of identify, culture, ethnicity, and race, would they be so god-damned obsessed with Taiwan? Yes, absolutely, it's neurotic.

He also has no clue about what happened in the political system here. The KMT now owns 75% of the legislature, municipalities, and holds the executive branch. How is democracy developing well here?

Can he at least read the newspapers here?

I hate these supposed specialists that either can't read Chinese fluently or don't even bother to read the English papers here, but talk in these abstract terms that don't apply to any of the realities here.

Thomas said...

Difference between Chinese and American politicians/commentators"

Chinese: Gives a dogmatic response and refuses to budge. Knows the real situation and won't let you know. Makes plans to act to counter the real problem. Plays nice on unrelated issues and talks about how his economy will be revving up soon to remind Americans of what they want.

American: Thinks he knows what is going on. Thinks his solution is at least a step sideways in a good direction. Exchanges views with others who think they know what is going on. Formulates a policy that has America in the centre. Never knows what the hell is really going on.

Something could happen to upend this, but it is not surprising to me that some see this as the century of China. They may have some stumbling blocks coming up, but they can stay on task.

I just wish there were a president out there that really cared enough to learn about Taiwan.

Sorry... this was a minor rant. I think that rants should be allowed from time to time. :-S

vin said...

"Real leaders, anger, a fighting spirit — this is what the situation calls for..."

What is the point of writing phrases such as these? Did I miss something in the papers these last couple weeks? Has the "harmony" value been declared null and void here? If not, then why not equally ask warring tribes on Borneo to lay down their spears in mutual recognition of Jesus as Lord? Or in sudden staggering apprehension of the Dostoeveskian horror of existence?

I know you mean well, J. Michael. And personally, I find Taiwanese to be a very righteous people. But as long as the "harmony" value abides unchallenged here, the only time your call will be heeded, so far as I can see, is when matters have reached a point where bloodshed is inevitable.

That might be a little late, no?

Sorry to be harsh, but I find your words naive and therefore quite frustrating. Taiwan isn't Canada or the U.S.

Dixteel said...

Sometimes these US officials' view really bothers me. Do they even know what the true TI fundamentalists sound like? CSB is not a fundamentalist at all. To me he is not even fundamental enough.

And while they call CSB fundamentalist, they don't think KMT, Ma and CPP fundamental as well? Or maybe they should just look at themselves in the mirror, and maybe they will discover another "fundamentalist."

Dixteel said...

Well...perhaps it's no wonder...because Taiwan has diplomat like this A-Hole:

What's written in the article is just a tip of an iceberg. He wrote a lot more worse statements.

If the US officials only have contact with these kind of A-Hole from Taiwan, what kind of view will they have? Looking at it this the result is not surprising.

Anonymous said...

Great comments!

Anonymous said...

Here I want to stress that no matter how the situation across the Taiwan Strait may evolve, we will never waiver in our commitment to the one China principle and will never compromise our opposition to “Taiwan independence”, “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan”. ---

lol.. he forgot a only tru way for Taiwan. Its called Formosas indepence and freedom from chinese ocupation. there is no way around. if chinese will be acsepted as part of the islands future(i mean chinese legal and illigal immigrants who tooked over the island aftr ww2) they must be sorry and give the rule power back to the folk who will live and decide own life and not fake life of chinese ocupants who pretend to be the only savior of Taiwan.

---If China had a sophisticated sense of the fluidity of identify, culture, ethnicity, and race, would they be so god-damned obsessed with Taiwan? Yes, absolutely, it's neurotic.--- Strategical way into Pacific and South-eastasia my dear. with many control of international routes(with a same importance like Suez and Panama canal) and rich ressourses behind 70 miles.

--Did I miss something in the papers these last couple weeks?--

yeapp.. chinese bitching around US-navy ship.

“The US must be engaged with China. China is too big to ignore. But let’s keep our eyes open. At this point in history, and for the foreseeable future, China’s vision is too narrow to leverage the value of responsible stakeholderhood,” he said.

Anonymous said...

"Does this nation seek to react when it might be too late, or will it seek to be proactive and parry the blows as they come?"

If govt. here is anything like the baseball management style, they'll wait til the situation has blown up in their face and then take out the pitcher when they're already down 4 runs and it's too late. Anticipating things ahead of time doesn't seem to be their strong suit here, does it?

"The time has arrived for the Taiwanese middle class to awaken from its slumber and take the destiny of their country in their own hands. There is no room for rampant defeatism or the sense of powerlessness that seems to have installed itself like cosmic dust on the shoulders of Taiwanese."

Maybe the kids in the public universities are a bit more with it, but if the kids in the Uni I used to teach in are a guide they wouldn't even mobilize to get more pearls put in their milk tea much less rally against their government. You're a pretty hopeful man if you believe this hello kitty generation of kids is going to mobilize for any form of social change....until it's too late at least...

Anonymous said...

Can someone email Bush and ask him what the hell he is reading? He seems totally clueless...

MikeinTaipei said...


Thanks for your comments, which are useful as they force me to revisit my assumptions.

Of course I am aware that Taiwan isn’t the US or Canada — or even Quebec, to draw on the frequent analogy. I must disrespectfully disagree with your views on the “harmonious” society, however. In my view, the lack of “fire in the belly” stems mostly from an apathetic state of mind than homogenous social striving for “harmony.” I’ve had this conversation elsewhere, but I this is largely the result of Taiwanese simply not being aware of their country’s own history, of a middle class that is content when things are stable, when there’s food on the table. I don’t think it would take much (and call me na├»ve if you want) to resuscitate the sense of anger toward the KMT — and the CCP — that is needed if a people is to avoid going gently into the night, as it were. To do this, of course, one would have to stop watching revisionist television mostly controlled by a certain party and turn to history. What is needed isn’t bloodshed, or vengeance for past wrongs, but awareness — enough awareness that those who would wrong them would have to think twice before doing so. That’s the message I think Taiwanese youth should be sending. There are some of them out there. More are needed if they are to be taken seriously by the powers that be in Taipei, Beijing and Washington.

vin said...

J. Michael:

Thanks for your comments, too.

I totally agree that the “harmony” value has no proactive “social striving” component. But this points to why I think you’re selling it way short in describing it only as “an apathetic state of mind.” “Harmony” is grounded in fear-based conditioning, and you can cite all you want the primary gains to be obtained by turning off the TV and seeking out better sources of news, but people will still keep turning on the news because, as any psychologist will say, most almost always care more about secondary (the hidden) gains such as freedom from responsibility and freedom from the loneliness of standing alone/being rejected.

I think you’re vastly underestimating the personal strength required to eschew these secondary gains in a “harmony” culture. Taiwanese don’t score social points for standing up and promoting a sense of responsibility in their culture like we do (to a degree, anyway) in ours. They get ostracized, and I can tell you some illustrative examples of this happening to fine young people at universities. (They kept their heads on straight, too – didn’t throw away their responsible values – but they ended up feeling there was nothing they could do.) Nor, probably, do people here satisfy a felt need for “identity” via “standing up” to nearly the same degree that we do.

I don’t mean at all that Taiwanese don’t have a solid sense of justice or that they don’t have courage. These two things do manifest themselves quite admirably once situations become extreme enough. I mean, rather, that “harmony” has literally blinded most people – young and old – here. If fear is termed “morality” often enough, as is the case with “harmony,” confusion and self-doubt become inevitable in all but the hardiest – and it would be no different for a North American like you or I raised in such an environment.

My chief point is that political awareness is not enough to counteract “harmony”-induced inertia except when political outrages become so extreme that violence is inevitable. So if you want to trim the number of political outrages – and ultimately prevent violence -- the shortest route to doing so is by highlighting the truth about “harmony.” Unless people feel really uncomfortable with the discrepancy between what “harmony” purports to be and what it actually is, there’s no way, I don’t think, that most will be willing to give up the secondary benefits they’ve been conditioned by “harmony” to accept and to want to keep.

So until such time as the discrepancy might become apparent, I have to agree with Anon’s quip about young people not even rallying for more pearls in their milk tea. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some amazing exceptions, but…

reeb said...

Nice analysis MT. J.Michael Cole's article was also an excellent read.
(Not a time for a nation of sheep)

Zhuxiu said...

I really appreciate your analysis of these documents. It is very clear that Taiwan continues to be the political football for the "Great Powers" in their geopolitical games. The people of Taiwan get sacrificed, as always. This was clear to me during my military service there in the early 1960s, and it is sad to see this remains the case.

Michael Turton said...


Thanks, yes it is very sad. But many in Washington love our island, so I haven't written my nightmare "it's all over now" post yet.

Michael Turton said...

Sometimes these US officials' view really bothers me. Do they even know what the true TI fundamentalists sound like? CSB is not a fundamentalist at all. To me he is not even fundamental enough.

LOL. I had the same thought, but figured there was no reason to put any of those fundies out in public. Ugh! I'm on an internet group where they cluster, and one nutcase has written 23 incoherent letters to Obama, which he posts to the group, and asks them to send to their Congressmen. Scary.


reeb said...

..I haven't written my nightmare "it's all over now" post yet.

Oh man, Michael. That would be the worst omen for all of us.

Unfortunately, I see it coming.