In June 2008, Wang replaced Chen Yunlin, who had been in the position for more than a decade. Chen was appointed as the chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). TAO visits abroad are a standard aspect of China’s diplomatic initiative to bring the world around to its way of thinking. They also offer an opportunity for U.S. officials to express their views regarding Taiwan and cross-Strait relations. Wang Yi’s predecessor, Director Chen Yunlin, is said to have visited Washington, D.C. in February 2004, January 2005, and September 2006, and April 2007. TAO deputy director and ARATS vice chairman Sun Yafu is said to have visited New York and San Francisco in January 2007. TAO deputy director Li Bingcai visited Los Angeles in July 2006; and Deputy Director Wang Zaixi visited Japan in April 2006 and New York in November 2005.
Wang himself is no stranger to Washington. From August 1997 to February 1998, Wang was a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and he visited a number of occasions to discuss North Korea-related issues while Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The Wang Agenda
A Taiwan Policy Review: Past and Present
Ambassador Wang’s visit also will be taking place as senior officials get settled in to their new positions and start to develop an interagency consensus on cross-Strait policies. Taipei Times carried an article in April saying "Washington may soon launch a new Taiwan Policy Review that could have an enormous impact on bilateral relations." Senior Congressional sources were noted as saying that a "formal review is being considered by the Obama administration but that no decision has been made." The article also highlights a Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) piece in which China specialist David Shambaugh asserts that there is a “growing discussion” in Washington of the need to undertake a thorough Taiwan Policy Review “given the dramatic and positive changes in cross-strait relations.” The article notes that a policy review was conducted in 1979 and again 15 years later in 1994. Then by extension, another 15 years down the road, it's time for another one.
A Taiwan policy review -- or a China policy review with Taiwan as a subordinate issue -- is normal with a changeover in political power in Washington. Reviews took place in 1961 with the new Kennedy administration, in 1969 with the incoming Republican administration under Richard Nixon, in 1977 with new Carter administration, 1981 with the incoming Republican administration, 1993 with the Democrat administration, 2001 with the Bush administration, and probably with the new Obama administration. In most cases, key issues for interagency review include the form and substance of relations with both the PRC and Taiwan, with a heavy emphasis on defense relations, including arms sales.
-- Kennedy Administration. In 1961, the new Kennedy administration evaluated dual diplomatic recognition of the ROC and the PRC;
-- Nixon Administration. Less than two weeks after his inauguration in January 1969, President Nixon signed National Security Study Memorandum 14 (NSSM-14), which directed an interagency policy review of US policy toward the Republic of China (ROC) and the PRC be completed by 10 March 1969. This review established the groundwork for the opening of relations with the PRC and the President's visit to China in February 1972;
-- Carter Administration. A policy review initiated in June 1977 culminated in the 1979 switch in diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) to the PRC, abrogation of the 1954 US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, and implementation of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA);
-- Reagan Administration. During its first 18 months, President Reagan's interagency team appears to have been absorbed with China issues. An initial initiative appears to have been an interagency review on arms sales policy toward China, which was the key deliverable during the first principal-level visit to Beijing in June 1981. Eventually, the Taiwan arms sales issue came to a head and was temporarily resolved with the 1982 Communique. In 1982, the U.S. and ROC began annual Arms Sales Talks in which Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense presented its list of requested items for U.S. review;
-- Clinton Administration. The Clinton administration is said to have initiated an interagency Taiwan policy review about two months after inauguration. Eighteen months later, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord proclaimed that the "lengthy, detailed interagency policy review that we have conducted is the first of its kind launched by any administration of either political party since we shifted recognition to Beijing in 1979." The reality, however, is that the review was more cosmetic than substantive, presumably to ward off Taiwan supporters in Congress as the administration began to restore military to military relations with the PLA. The Clinton administration raised the cap on US government officials able to visit Taiwan, including a relaxation on military officer travel, and also changed the name of Taiwan's representative office in Washington;
-- Bush Administration. In 2001, a Taiwan policy review resulted in the release of a number of key weapon systems, elimination of the annual arms sales talks, and a general deepening and broadening of defense relations. Instead of submitting requests for defense articles and services through the annual arms sales talks forum, Taiwan MND was able to send letters of request at any time of the year.
The Obama Administration Taiwan Team
At the Pentagon, Derek Mitchell serves as Gregson's principle deputy, although his specific portfolio isn’t clear yet. Given the fact that Afghanistan may absorb a significant portion of LTG (ret) Gregson’s time, one could speculate that Mitchell may play a more active role on China/Taiwan issues than his predecessors.
Final Ramblings on the Triangular Relationship
The most enduring solution could be for key opinion leaders within Beijing’s hardline camp and key opinion leaders with Taiwan’s independence movement to take a trip to Palau, exchange bottles of Kaoliang and Maotai, crack them open over a private dinner, come up with mutually acceptable arrangement, then hit an upscale KTV to top off the evening. I’m only half-joking here. But there are an infinite number of creative solutions that the two sides could come up with, if the two sides really wanted to resolve their differences. Or maybe it’s that the two sides can’t because of domestic political dynamics. This is where the U.S. may have a role to play. The Obama administration could help to create an environment in which more liberal thinking could take place, especially in Beijing.
U.S. policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, has helped to keep the peace for 30 years. With this in mind, the attitude seems to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, let’s look at it in a different way. Significant portions of the annual defense budgets of the United States (U.S. $515 billion in 2009), the PRC (declared budget of U.S. $70 billion in 2009), and Taiwan (U.S. $10 billion) are driven by planning scenarios involving possible PRC use of force against Taiwan. When significant resources have to be dedicated to prevent a crisis, then something is broken. Put simply, the so-called status quo carries a significant price tag. But it seems to be a price that mainstream, status quo-bound political leaders in Washington, Beijing, and Taipei are willing to accept.
To sum up, will Ambassador Wang Yi’s visit resolve anything? The answer is probably no. But it’s fun to liberate one’s thinking sometimes and consider the possibilities.