chapter  3
24 Pages

Washington’s policies toward North Korea and the Taiwan Strait: the role of US domestic politics

ByTun-jen Cheng

The Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait are two flash points in post-Cold War East Asia in which the US has long been embroiled. Carrying high stakes, US policies toward North Korea, an anachronistic communist regime believed to be armed with nuclear weapons and a threat to its neighbors, have been heatedly disputed. The debate has focused on the shift or balance between engagement and coercion, carrot and stick, in order to defuse the nuclear crisis on the peninsula. US policies toward Taiwan, a prosperous democracy under the long shadow of authoritarian China, also have been a contentious issue. The controversy centers on the efficacy of the doctrine of strategic ambiguity, or the shape and mode of US commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Treating the US as a unitary actor, much of the literature assesses the virtues and vices of competing approaches to managing the situation in the Taiwan Straits and the Korean peninsula.1 To the extent that the domestic side of the story is examined, the attention is primarily an interagency squabble and the analysis typically revolves around the tenet of good old bureaucratic politics model-where you stand depends on where you sit (State, Defense or National Security Council). This paper looks at the role of domestic politics more broadly, considering the possible impacts of not merely bureaucratic politics, but also public opinion, partisan difference, and executive-legislative nexus on US policy toward North Korea and Taiwan. While most observers would readily agree that domestic politics, especially in a democracy, can constrain or drive foreign policy, very few have endeavored to specify the conditions under which, and the mechanisms by which, politics impinge on foreign policy.