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Kerry Dumbaugh, CRS
In response to political developments in Taiwan, the Bush Administration is widely seen to have dialed back its initial public enthusiasm for supporting Taiwan initiatives, particularly those seen as provocative or as challenges to what the United States understand as the “status quo.” While still pursuing a closer U.S. relationship with Taiwan, U.S. officials now appear to be balancing criticisms of the PRC military buildup opposite Taiwan with periodic cautions and warnings to Taiwan that some of its actions are “unhelpful” and that U.S. support for Taiwan is not unconditional, but has limits.
This represents a marked departure from the early days of the George W. Bush Administration, when the White House seemed to abandon the long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan in favor of “strategic clarity” that placed more emphasis on Taiwan’s interests and less on PRC concerns. Among other things, President Bush approved a substantial sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan (in April 2001) and was more willing than previous U.S. presidents to approve visas for visits from Taiwan officials, including Taiwan’s president in 2001 and 2003, and Taiwan’s vice president and defense minister in 2002. This initial policy approach was in keeping with growing congressional sentiment that greater U.S. support was needed for Taiwan’s defense needs, particularly given the PRC’s military build-up in southern China. Members undertook a number of bipartisan initiatives to focus more U.S. attention on Taiwan and raise its international stature, including establishing a House Congressional Taiwan Caucus in 2002 and Senate Taiwan Caucus in 2003.
Since then, U.S.-Taiwan relations have undergone important changes, sparked in part by the increasing complexity and unpredictability of Taiwan’s democratic political environment. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has disavowed key concepts long embraced by the formerly ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) — the “status quo” that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it — and instead has adopted the more provocative position that Taiwan already “is an independent, sovereign country,” a “status quo” he promises to maintain. In 2007, President Chen has made pursuing full United Nations membership under the name “Taiwan” one of his policy priorities, despite PRC opposition and strong U.S. statements of discouragement.
While these recent actions have succeeded in further elevating the concept of Taiwan nationalism, even among the DPP’s KMT opponents, many in the electorate appear wary of the more strident and confrontational aspects of President Chen’s political positions. This, combined with a series of corruption scandals involving Chen administration officials and the president’s family members, has led to record low approval ratings for President Chen and a growing political outcry against him. These political trends have raised anxieties about the prospects for a future political and constitutional crisis in Taiwan that could further complicate U.S. policy.
This report will be updated as events warrant.