Politics play a key role in the future of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations, because the issue of Taiwan's future is highly politicized in all three societies. For Taiwan, its survival as a democratic, independent international entity is at stake. For China, bringing Taiwan into the embrace of the motherland for national unification is fundamental policy. For the United States, the issue of Taiwan is more complex, touching upon such important national interests as supporting fellow democracies, demonstrating commitment to friends and allies, counterbalancing the potential threat from China while accommodating its great power status, helping to maintain peace and stability in the Western Pacific, ensuring strong American influence in the Asia-Pacific region, and balancing pro-Taiwan and pro-China political audiences in the United States.
The political system of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is dominated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by a small Politburo and a larger Central Committee. The challenges facing CCP collective leadership are enormous, and include such critical issues as how to ensure CCP political control over the country while implementing policies to respect individual rights, institute rule by law, expand the market economy, and remain open to the outside world. Because of its large size, diverse population, and historical tradition, China probably will always gravitate toward strong centralized government. However, single-party political dominance creates too many opportunities for corruption, ill-conceived policies, officially tolerated injustice, favoritism, and human rights abuses. Where political power is too concentrated, the worst in men's character can be sheltered by membership in the governing elite. Pressure for political reform will steadily increase in modern China, but single party systems often have great difficulty in meeting those popular expectations.
One central problem of China's politics is how to hold the government accountable to the people, an issue made ever more pressing by rising standards of living, higher education, the social media, and modern means of communications such as the Internet. If the CCP cannot discipline itself and succeed in drawing into its ranks individuals necessary to administer a highly complex, modern society, then the continuation of the Party as the dominant political power in China cannot be assumed.
How the CCP leadership responds to this challenge is a determining factor in the future of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations. If the CCP can reform in a progressive and peaceful manner, then Chinese policies toward the Taiwan issue will likely be moderate and peaceful. If the CCP digs in its heels and oppresses legitimate voices from the Chinese people asking for more government accountability and political reform, then the Party's leadership may decide to heat up the Taiwan issue as a nationalistic mantra that buys the CCP more time.
Taiwan's political challenges are different, but equally difficult. One key issue in Taiwan's politics is the relationship of the island to mainland China. Other factors -- personalities, corruption, local political factions, ethnicity, and especially the economy and standards of living -- heavily influence the outcome of elections on the island. But at the root of many political differences between the two major competing parties -- the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party (KMT and DPP) -- is the issue of how best to maintain Taiwan's de facto independence in the face of persistent PRC efforts to gain control over the island through various "soft" and "hard" strategies.
Taiwan is, culturally speaking, almost entirely Chinese. The huge majority of the people are of Chinese ancestry. Yet the island's population is divided sharply between those who consider themselves ethically Taiwanese and those who consider themselves ethically Chinese. Ethnic identification forms a core of supporters of the KMT and DPP. Both parties have powerful factions which have hard positions on whether Taiwan eventually should unify with a more democratic China or whether Taiwan should become formally independent from China as a separate nation-state. Neither position dominates Taiwan's politics, yet each is so strongly held that its supporters can paralyze political processes if they believe trends are moving in directions they oppose.
As a result of these nearly irreconcilable differences, Taiwan's government functions with limited policy options. Some things, like a strong economy, need for self-defense, and broader international recognition, are supported by the vast majority of the people. But issues touching upon political relationships with China are highly divisive. Neither China nor the United States know for certain what the democratic government of Taiwan will do. Hence, Beijing and Washington -- to protect their own interests -- must keep their options open, including those involving possible military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait.
U.S. relations with China and Taiwan vary perennially in importance as issues in American domestic politics. However, Sino-American relations are nearly always considered by the U.S. government to be among the most important in the world. Most Americans today see China as a potential threat as well as a potential partner in regional and global affairs. U.S. policy towards China tends to vacillate over time between friend and foe, and to be inconsistent, characteristics reinforced by rotating administrations with their own agendas and priorities.
Generalizing U.S. views toward China and Taiwan is difficult, but these personal observations may be offered: Americans dislike communism and see no long-term reconciliation between communist states and democracies. Americans like the Chinese people and respect Chinese culture, but they have no experience with a strong China and therefore do not quite know how to respond to Beijing's reassertion of its traditional role in Asia. Americans believe their government should support democracies such as Taiwan, but they expect their friends to defend themselves and not be solely dependent on U.S. intervention.
Domestic politics in all three societies make the trilateral relationship between the United States, China, and Taiwan inherently unpredictable.
November 16, 2011