Taiwan opposition leader Su bids to boost ties in Washington
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Taiwan opposition leader Su bids to boost ties in Washington

Though the fracas with Philippines is currently occupying the news feeds in Taiwan, it is noteworthy that current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang went to the US last week to open the DPP offices in Washington, DC, and hobnob with influential politicians on both sides of the aisle (Taipei Times report). Su met with major Congressional supporters of Taiwan, including Steve Chabot, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Sherrod Brown, and Ed Royce. As leader of Taiwan’s major opposition party, Su has the inside track on the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

Officially, Washington is unhappy with the DPP. During the two Administrations of DPP President Chen Shui-bian (2000-8), China ratcheted up tensions in order to split Washington from Taipei. To spare itself tension with Beijing, Washington frequently criticized President Chen. In the latter half of the second Bush Administration, it turned down a request from Taipei to purchase 66 F-16s, an order that has been the subject of much speculation in the media since, with little real progress. As in so many other areas, the Obama Administration simply followed Bush Administration policy and continues to deny Taiwan the fighters, offering upgrades to its current F-16s instead. During the 2012 presidential election in Taiwan, a high-ranking Obama Administration official even attacked DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, telling the Financial Times

She left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.

However, things have changed since then, particularly on defense. While US officials are quick to heap praise on current President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (KMT) for “reducing tensions” between Taiwan and China, Ma’s failure to enhance the island’s defense spending even after promising it would rise has generated complaints inside the Beltway. For example, James Holmes criticized Taipei’s military spending in The Diplomat, observing, “For one thing, military preparedness hasn’t been a strong suit of either KMT or DPP governments in quite some time.” Though at least partly wrong, Holmes expressed widely felt sentiments.

The DPP, often seen in Washington as a troublemaker that might drag the US into war with China, has been attempting to repair its relations with Official Washington. Opening a DPP office there is one route to this goal. With the Ma Administration perceived in Washington as weak on defense, the DPP  has been given an opening. Chairman Su assured listeners in a speech at Brookings that it would do everything it could to maintain and enhance the island nation’s defenses:

In the past few years, the cross-strait military imbalance has become more serious, but Taiwan’s investment in defense is growing smaller. It is time for us to demonstrate that we are serious.

Su said that the US is Taiwan’s most important partner and that Taiwan’s current defense budget must be increased. At present the legislature is controlled by the KMT, a situation highly unlikely to change for many election cycles to come. During the previous eight years of DPP rule, the KMT-controlled legislature blocked discussion of purchases of F-16s (and other needed weaponry) from reaching the floor of the legislature over 60 times. Even if Su wins the election in 2016, there is little prospect of a KMT-controlled legislature loosening the purse strings. Pressure from Washington, however, might be helpful.

Nevertheless, Su’s visit signals a renewed effort to appease official Washington and enhance the DPP’s status and credentials. Though observers often speak of China-Taiwan relations, in fact, the relationship should more properly be thought of as China-Taiwan-United States. Thus, smooth relations with Washington will be vital for the DPP if it wants to face cross-strait relations “with confidence” as DPP Chairman Su avers.