US quietly glad over China-Taiwan talks

WASHINGTON - The administration of US President Barack Obama is quietly supportive of last week's historic cross-strait talks, though it is cautious about intervening too much in one of the few improving North-east Asian relationships, say observers.

Thus far, Washington - normally a big player in China-Taiwan ties - has been conspicuous by its silence about the meeting in Nanjing between Mr Zhang Zhijun, head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, and Mr Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

No official has made any public remarks about the matter, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry visiting Beijing at about the same time that China and Taiwan were holding their first official talks in 65 years.

Analysts in the US capital say reticence is the best strategy for the Obama administration, which is satisfied with the current reduction in tensions.

A largely unnecessary public intervention might distract from the more important issues of Chinese territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Said Mr Jerome Cohen, adjunct senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council of Foreign Relations think-tank in Washington: "Washington's best option is to keep up with developments, quietly discussing them with both sides, and to say as little as possible in public.

"We need to be free to focus on the East China Sea and South China Sea and to encourage China, in public, to take international law more seriously instead of thumbing its nose at the UN Law of the Sea Tribunal in the Philippines arbitration and ignoring the opportunity to take its Diaoyu case to the International Court of Justice."

He was referring to Manila's challenge of China's claims to the South China Sea and to China's competing claims with Japan for the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles.

The US' role in China-Taiwan ties has sometimes impacted negatively on its own ties with Beijing. For instance, Washington's continued arms sales to Taipei have long been a sticking point in Sino-US ties, despite the US' long-held one-China policy. The deals are constantly cited as one of the major factors that impede better US-China military cooperation.

Last week's cross-strait talks thus bring much cheer to the Obama administration.

China expert Bonnie Glaser said the talks establish a welcome mechanism for problem-solving between China and Taiwan.

"As long as Beijing is not putting pressure on Taiwan to engage in discussion or cooperation on issues on which it is not prepared to move forward, Washington has no concerns," she said.

The senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies added: "Given the contentious nature of the US-China relationship in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, such as the East China Sea and the South China Sea, the effort being made by the two sides of the (Taiwan) Strait to keep their relationship stable is quite welcome. The reduction in tensions between the mainland and Taiwan has meant that less time needs to be spent on Taiwan-related issues in US-China conversations."

She and others expect the US to keep its Taiwan policy in a holding pattern as it watches developments there.

For all the positivity now, there remain clear stumbling blocks ahead.

The current purple patch in ties is partly down to a more conciliatory tone taken by Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou.

But Mr Ma will be leaving office in 2016, and it is unclear what sort of China policy his successors might have. That leaves much uncertainty over cross-strait ties over the next two years.

"We have to be wondering what will happen in the 2016 Taiwan election and what the implications of a DPP victory might be, especially when the DPP is having such difficulty developing a new policy towards the mainland," said Mr Cohen, referring to the Democratic Progressive Party.

"Unless there is continuing cooperation (across the strait), the US may not be able to sustain a credible 'pivot' in Asia without risking a 'cold' war or even a 'hot' one with China."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


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