In light of the North Korean nuclear threat, Sino-Japanese territorial disputes and conflicting claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan appears to be the exception in a region of rising tensions. Beijing claims that Taiwan is part of China but has been willing to take a long-term approach in the hope that enhancing cross-Strait ties will bring the island into China peacefully. Taiwanese have shown little interest in provoking the mainland by declaring permanent independence. At the same time, they will not risk their freedom or sovereignty though closer political ties to the mainland. As a result, while the island's ultimate fate remains undetermined, cross-Strait trade, investment and travel are booming.
This January, the island was in the news thanks to peaceful elections. The Nationalist Party led by Ma Ying-jeou was victorious. Mr. Ma promised to continue a policy of "no unification, no independence and no use of force" in order to focus on economic ties with the mainland and to defer the difficult question of political relations. President Barack Obama congratulated Mr. Ma on his re-election and added, "Taiwan has proven to be one of the great success stories in Asia."
Now, however, is not the time to be sanguine. While Americans focus on economic woes and the upcoming election, three factors may force Washington to pay more attention to Taiwan.
First, the leaders of Taiwan may not be able to meet the expectations of their mainland counterparts. Over the past four years, the two sides forged a series of pacts to encourage trade, travel and investment. The least contentious agreements with tangible economic benefits have been concluded. At some point, mainland leaders will want to move into political talks on unification or military matters. Few on Taiwan have shown enthusiasm for such discussions.
Second, China has up to 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles, 500 aircraft and 400,000 soldiers opposite Taiwan — a force that Taiwan cannot hope to match.China'smassive military modernization over the past decade has given Beijing more confidence in its ability to coerce the island, and increased the chance of accidents or incidents that could spin out of control.
Third, Chinese leaders often prove their patriotism and bureaucracies enhance their budgets by taking a tough line on Taiwan. Beginning this year, Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao in the top posts in the state, party and military. Leadership transitions can bring heightened factional or bureaucratic competition and open the door to demagoguery on the Taiwan issue.
This transition period also leaves leaders more susceptible to public pressure. The state has fostered nationalism to bolster the regime's legitimacy as communism becomes less relevant. These efforts sometimes come back to haunt China's leaders. Primarily through the Internet, pressure from strong nationalists to recover Taiwan can reduce China's flexibility.
No single one of these factors is likely to provoke a crisis. Taken together, however, mistakes and misjudgments could snowball. The United States' commitment to regional peace and stability could draw it into a cross-Strait conflict.
What can the United States do? First, the Obama administration should reiterate that it expects a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait ties, and that any solution must be acceptable to the people of Taiwan. Washington should also make clear its support for Taiwan's democracy. Second, maintaining a credible military deterrent in the Western Pacific and encouraging Taiwan to purchase weapons necessary for self-defense will deter China from using force, and perhaps convince Beijing that an arms race is not in its interests. The Obama administration's recent "pivot" back to Asia includes enhanced military ties to an arc of countries stretching from Australia to Japan. Taiwan must be included in that effort.
With proper attention from Washington, even during a hectic election year, Taiwan's "great success" of democratization and peaceful cross-Strait interaction can continue.
Steven Phillips is a professor of history at Towson University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.