The Ma Doctrine

The Taiwan Strait remains one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical flash points, where a showdown risks conflict between the United States and China, two nuclear powers. 

We had the opportunity to meet with Taiwan’s president in Taipei last week. We found a cross-strait relationship that has been fundamentally transformed and a partner still eager to purchase advanced warplanes from the United States.

Cross-strait tensions have eased dramatically in recent years, and the contested South China Sea has overtaken the Taiwan Strait as the most volatile hot spot in the Asia-Pacific. Disputes between China, Japan and southeast Asian countries over resource-rich areas of the South China Sea contribute to regional instability more seriously than the Taiwan Strait.

Improved prospects for lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait are due mostly to Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s bold diplomacy, which has transformed the cross-strait relationship and laid the foundation for an extended dialogue between Taiwan and China. Though neither will yet admit it, the two sides have begun cautiously a long negotiation to settle a civil war that began almost a century ago. 

This dialogue could ultimately help resolve the question of Taiwan’s political status — the third rail of international politics.

In three years since his inauguration, President Ma has overseen six rounds of cross-strait talks that have produced 15 agreements in commerce, tourism and cultural exchange. Taipei’s museums are packed with mainlanders eager to view ancient Chinese artifacts that left the mainland in 1949 along with the exiled Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and his loyalists. Thousands of Taiwanese students take classes in mainland universities and vice versa. More than 500 commercial flights cross the strait each week, up from just 36 in 2008.

Intensive negotiations — mediated by “white glove” quasi-governmental agencies that allow each side to avoid formal diplomatic recognition of the other — have put the cross-strait relationship on its soundest footing in two decades.

President Ma emphasizes Taiwan’s commitment to proactive engagement with the mainland and the importance of a peaceful and stable Taiwan Strait. He told us that he believes cross-strait commerce and tourism — instruments of soft power — will speed the pace of liberalization on the mainland and prove to mainlanders that Chinese democracy is possible. Meanwhile, Taiwan strategists know the massive People’s Liberation Army outmatches their military; their plan is not to defeat the PLA, but to invest in making war too costly for the mainland to contemplate.

This is the Ma Doctrine, and it is a strategy that the United States should continue to support vigorously. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which will vie to unseat President Ma in January’s election, is unlikely to sustain the current momentum in improvement of cross-straight ties.

Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China are in the opening phases of a long and arduous negotiation over Taiwan’s final status. President Ma continues to insist that any political discussions be conditioned upon a reduction in the PLA’s arsenal of ballistic missiles across the strait. But there is reason to believe that cross-strait negotiators are interested in eventually broadening the scope of discussions, which thus far have stuck to business and avoided politics.

A lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait is in the vital strategic interest of the United States. But it is equally essential that the U.S. not abandon Taiwan to uncompromising demands by the mainland and sacrifice the world’s only Chinese democracy and a close partner to avoid offending Beijing. The right role for the U.S. is to provide balancing stability to strengthen Taiwan’s negotiating position as diplomacy unfolds.

The Obama administration’s announcement that it will upgrade Taiwan’s F-16A/B fleet demonstrates that we remain committed to our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances of 1982. This is the second set of sales announced by President Obama, who in less than three years has sold Taiwan nearly as much military hardware as former President Bush did in two full terms.

The U.S. announcement that it will continue to consider the sale of new and more capable F-16 C/Ds shows American recognition of the situation’s complexity in the face of Beijing’s continued swaggering. The U.S. must consider carefully whether further sales are warranted. But as long as China continues to build up its forces across the strait, Taiwan is right to feel threatened. No one believes an upgraded air force will allow Taiwanese armed forces to defeat the People’s Liberation Army. However, President Ma insists that without confidence in its capabilities and in the continued support of the U.S., Taiwan will be unable to engage effectively the mainland in diplomacy.

President Ma said in no uncertain terms that his country still wants to purchase new F-16C/D fighters from the United States. Chinese authorities insist that F-16C/D sales are a “red line” and threaten to harm the U.S.-PRC relationship, if America sells the fighters. Chinese officials should understand that reductions in U.S. military sales to Taiwan will be more likely if China takes credible steps to reduce the threat to Taiwan. The more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles sitting on launchers 100 miles from Taipei would be a good place to start.

Johnson sits on the House Armed Services and Judiciary committees. Ossoff serves as Johnson’s senior adviser for defense and foreign affairs.