On January 16, 2016, EastWest Institute Perot Fellow and Vice President David Firestein appeared on Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin Service to comment on the 2016 Taiwanese presidential elections, which resulted in the election of Taiwan's first-ever female president. He addressed the implications of Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-Wen's landslide victory on cross-Strait and U.S.-China relations and discussed its ramifications for the ongoing U.S. presidential election campaign.
On Tsai Ing-wen’s victory, commitment to “status quo” and impact on relations between Taipei, Beijing and Washington, DC:
Firestein argued that Tsai Ing-wen recognizes the importance of cross-Strait stability for Taiwan, the mainland and the United States. Firestein noted that the U.S. was unsurprised by the results of the election and that U.S. policy towards Taiwan generally remains unchanged regardless of which party governs Taiwan. In Firestein’s view, maintaining the imperfect status quo in terms of both Taiwan’s status and relations between Washington, Beijing and Taipei is currently the only tenable arrangement. Tsai has already promised to be communicative with the mainland in order to maintain stability, and although the mainland would have preferred a Kuomintang victory, it is also painfully aware of the negative consequences of interfering too deeply in Taiwan’s affairs. If both the mainland leadership and Tsai can continue to show restraint and move forward cautiously, cross-Strait relations can remain stable. To this end, the U.S. will continue to pursue “dual deterrence”—pressing both sides to show restraint in order to maintain peace.
On the U.S. response to the outcome of the election:
Firestein believes that the election will not change the United States’ existing policy toward Taiwan, which is codified in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the 1982 Six Assurances and the Joint Communiqué of August 17, 1982. Furthermore, in Firestein’s view, Tsai has internalized some important lessons from previous DPP President Chen Shui-bian’s handling of cross-Strait relations and relations with the United States as evidenced by her strong pledge to maintain stability in cross-Strait affairs and by her stated focus on improving the livelihood of ordinary people. Firestein believes that former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and current Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visits to Taipei and Beijing, respectively, in the wake of the election are not acts of preventive diplomacy per se, but rather are intended to affirm the continuity of longstanding U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
On the timing of the latest U.S. arms sale package to Taiwan:
Firestein states that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain a sore point for U.S.-China relations; he also notes that the four-year gap between the previous arms sales package to Taiwan and the latest package (2011 to 2015) is the longest a U.S. administration has gone without notifying Congress of its intent to sell arms to Taiwan since the arms sales first began. Firestein noted the Obama Administration’s efforts to limit the scope of the latest arms sale package relative to recent past packages and to execute the notification as discreetly as possible; by announcing the arms sale just before Christmas, a typically quiet part of the year, the administration was able to minimize fanfare surrounding the announcement. Firestein noted that the announcement attracted some criticism from the DPP as it was seen by some as potentially bolstering the Kuomintang in the election, but as evidenced by the landslide DPP victory, it ultimately had little effect on the election’s outcome.
On 2016 U.S. presidential candidates’ views on Taiwan:
Firestein noted that although China has been discussed in the ongoing U.S. presidential campaign, the Taiwan issue has not been mentioned by any of the candidates in either party. With the attention of U.S. foreign policy mostly focused on other issues such as the Islamic State, terrorism, the Middle East, Russia and North Korea, Taiwan is not considered a top-priority issue. He stated that most Americans do not think of Taiwan as a place where conflict will occur. Firestein also stated that all of the major U.S. presidential candidates hold relatively mainstream views of China. The China-related rhetoric that has been heard in the campaign have largely concerned trade, the exchange rate of China’s currency and other such issues that have dominated the U.S. policy debate on China in recent years.
Recommendations on managing cross-Strait relations:
Firestein emphasized that the U.S. need not change its policy on the Taiwan issue. On the contrary, with respect to the specific issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Firestein noted that the U.S. should adhere to its existing laws and policy commitments, including the Joint Communiqué of August 17, 1982. Looking at the Chinese side of the equation, Firestein suggested that China reduce the number of ballistic missiles in southeastern China currently aimed at Taiwan as a good-faith confidence-building measure. He expressed the view that if China could moderate its stance on Taiwan, doing so would likely help China achieve its own aims, while also creating a climate more conducive to continued peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.