The Need to Clarify and Strengthen Our Relationship with Taiwan

A graduate waves the Republic of China flag from Taiwan during commencement ceremonies at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 30, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The imperiled island democracy has become more isolated, and its relationship with the U.S. has grown ill-defined. Trump can and should change that.

Whatever other legacies President Trump leaves after his time in office, he will be remembered as a figure who realigned the GOP by bringing many of its core tenets into question. The party is no longer reliably supportive of multilateral trade agreements and opposed to tariffs. It is no longer interested in reforming entitlements, or in balancing the federal budget. It is no longer a proponent of the overseas deployment of U.S. forces for the sake of maintaining stability in unstable places. None of these shifts are necessarily permanent. To be sure, there will be reassessments of all of them after the Trump presidency, as the party decides what it wants to be going forward.

Here’s another shift, one I hope the party holds firm to over time: For the first time since the Nixon presidency, the GOP is no longer willing to accommodate Beijing. Republicans no longer see China as a benign emerging power to be nurtured as it merges into the society of nations. In action if not in fact, the Trump administration has redefined China as an economic and military adversary, and a human-rights abuser of massive and systematic proportions.

This is an overdue and welcome shift. There are practical actions that the administration can take to ensure that it lasts beyond Trump’s time in office as something more than a bargaining tactic in trade-deal negotiations. An important one is rethinking the role the U.S. has played as the handmaiden in Beijing’s decades-long global isolation of Taiwan.

Michael Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute has written about why strategic ambiguity about Taiwan has to this point served both U.S. and Chinese interests:

The purpose has been to ensure that Taipei would not be confident the United States would come to its aid in the event of a conflict and thus constrain any inclination towards pursuing de jure independence. On the other side of the strait, Beijing could not be sure that the United States would not intervene in a conflict and would thus be hesitant to use force against the island.

But several factors argue in favor of more clarity now. Most importantly, there has been an underlying shift in the U.S.–China relationship, and there is now an emerging consensus about China’s ill intent on several fronts.

Regarding the Trump administration’s increased willingness to treat China as an adversary, there seems to be alignment among the institutions of the U.S. government. In Congress, leaders on both sides of the aisle have taken a tougher view of the PRC for many years. On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre earlier this summer, House speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed a gathering of survivors and their families, recalling the bipartisan congressional delegation to Beijing she joined in 1991 to honor “those who died for democracy.” Pelosi wove discussion of the Tiananmen massacre into her condemnation of  China’s treatment of the current protests in Hong Kong and its deplorable oppression of its Uighur Muslim citizens. She recalled helping to unfurl a flag honoring the “heroes of Tiananmen” on the site of the tragedy during that 1991 trip. And she gracefully avoided mentioning the infamous late-1989 toast to the butchers of Tiananmen by the first President Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and deputy secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger. The Scowcroft–Eagleburger debacle was emblematic of the Nixonian approach to China, which has seen successive Republican and Democratic presidents gloss over Beijing’s malevolent actions in many areas in pursuit of the elusive goal of welcoming the PRC into the “family of nations.”

There is more alignment on China than in prior years within the executive branch, too. The traditional distinctions between a more hawkish Defense Department and a more accommodating State Department, with the White House and National Security Council in the middle to balance the two sides out, are dissolving. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been particularly tough on China. In a recent speech at Kansas State University, for instance, he said that the U.S. will use the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month to “rally the world” against China’s abuse of the Uighurs.

It would be unfortunate if this were all a pose by the administration, intended to pressure Beijing in pursuit of the president’s long-sought trade deal. But there are signs that the administration has a healthy strategic perspective on the situation.

That’s where U.S.–Taiwan relations come in. The Taiwanese foreign minister recently asserted that the relationship is in its best shape since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979, when the Carter administration in effect consigned the island nation to a footnote in the broader Beijing–Washington relationship. When it comes to Taiwan, a “strong” relationship with the U.S. translates to “more normal,” freed from some of the stultifying formality that has come to define it. President-elect Trump set an early tone when he took a congratulatory call after his election in 2016 from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, the first call between the two heads of their respective governments since 1979.

In office, the administration has continued that pattern of more-routine engagement. President Tsai has made multiple “transits” of the U.S., “transits” being the highly choreographed movements of a Taiwanese president through the U.S., ostensibly en route to another destination. She spent four nights in the U.S. this summer during a trip to and from the Caribbean to visit some of the very few countries that still diplomatically recognize Taiwan. Her stops included New York City and Denver, where she made multiple public appearances.

The transits of Taiwanese presidents through the U.S. are a useful measure of the level of intensity of the relationship. And by any measure the Tsai transits are on the high end of the dial. Typically, Taiwanese president transits are limited to a night in the U.S. somewhere that’s not New York or Washington. During my tenure in the George W. Bush administration as the senior U.S. representative to Taiwan, the State Department permitted then-president Chen Shui-bian an upgraded two-day New York City transit in 2003, when Chen was in favor with the U.S. government. Chen was the first Taiwanese president from the Democratic Progressive party, rather than the more Beijing-leaning Kuomintang. Over time, Chen came to be seen in Washington as too pro-independence. By 2007, Beijing had applied sufficient pressure on the Bush administration — including through such friends of the regime as Henry Kissinger — to ensure that Chen’s next transit was downgraded to a refueling stop in Alaska.

Tsai’s transits are just one indication of a normalizing tone. The Trump administration has also approved several arms sales to Taiwan worth billions. The sales include dozens of F-16 fighters and more than 100 Abrams tanks. The U.S. Navy also operates in the Strait of Taiwan, which separates the island from mainland China, and has done so with increasing frequency in recent years. (Its presence in the Strait had long been reserved for times of heightened tensions between the two neighboring countries, when the U.S. felt the need to show support for Taiwan.) All of this is sensible, given America’s commitment to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a cross-strait crisis.

The PRC has reacted with predictable bluster to these supposed affronts, including threatening sanctions on U.S. companies involved in the arms sales. For its part, the State Department has insisted all along that there has been no change to the U.S. “One China” policy, by which the U.S. acknowledges but doesn’t endorse Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. But there is little doubt that the administration is turning up the heat on Beijing through more regular engagement with Tsai’s government. Doug Paal, my former colleague at the American Institute in Taiwan, the State Department–linked nonprofit foundation that manages U.S.–Taiwan relations, summed it up well when he told Reuters in July that the interactions are “like an engine running at a high idle. . . . Trump has not engaged the gears, but there is a lot of activity at lower levels seeking to upgrade relations.”

By shifting that engine into first gear, the administration could do a lot to help bolster the democratic forces in the region and put further pressure on Beijing. The protests in Hong Kong over Beijing’s treatment of the island under the “one country, two systems” framework are instructive. The world is watching the breakdown of the commitment Beijing made to Hong Kong’s form of government at the time of the 1997 handover of the city from the U.K. The decision by Carrie Lam, the approved agent of the PRC serving as Hong Kong’s chief executive, to withdraw proposed legislation that would in certain instances have given Beijing legal jurisdiction over Hong Kong has not mollified the pro-democracy movement, which understands Beijing’s long-term objectives.

This is being felt in Taiwan, with Tsai and her DPP facing an election against an assortment of candidates, notably the KMT-backed mayor of Taiwan’s second largest city, Kaohsiung. Tsai is the first DPP leader since Chen, and her reelection would be a setback for Beijing. An August poll showed that DPP voters support the protests in Hong Kong by a margin of 82 percent to 6 percent. By contrast, only 33 percent of KMT voters supported the protests. Tsai is capitalizing on this anxiety; recent polls have her starting to create serious separation from her rivals, who have had to modify their own stances on Beijing given the tensions in Hong Kong.

Regardless of how the election next year turns out, though, there are other steps the Trump administration can take to further normalize its relationship with Taiwan and reset its relationship with China.

One measure would be to upgrade the level of engagement between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. Again, the administration has taken a step in this direction. In May, then–national-security adviser John Bolton met with his Taiwanese counterpart, David Lee, in Washington. Much like the Trump–Tsai phone call, this was the first such interaction since 1979, and, much like the phone call, it set off alarms in Beijing. The U.S. could build on it by sending Bolton’s yet-to-be-named successor to visit Lee in Taipei. The U.S. might also consider having other senior officials, including the secretaries of state and defense and the chiefs of the military services, meet with their Taiwanese counterparts.

Another step would be to include Taiwan in RIMPAC, the biennial military exercise on the Pacific Rim, next summer. For the first time in years, last year’s exercise excluded the PRC, a logical move inasmuch as the PRC is the country most likely to be the adversary in any Pacific Rim–wide military conflict. There was rampant expectation among those who follow it closely that Taiwan might be invited to join, which would be another logical progression. While it did not happen in 2018, it should in 2020.

Taking these and other steps would signify that the Trump administration is serious about placing the U.S.–China relationship on a more realistic and enduring footing. China under President Xi Jinping seeks to displace the United States in the Pacific and has made several moves in that direction. These include creating and militarizing artificial islands to establish sovereignty over disputed portions of the South and East China Seas. Beijing’s regional ambitions are well documented by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 assessment of Chinese military power, and in other government analyses. The administration’s focus on trade and intellectual-property rights should not obscure this underlying reality. Whatever progress it may make on those important issues will do little to address China’s aggressive stance toward its neighbors.

The time for clarity about a strategic national-security priority — the preservation of Taiwan as a democracy firmly outside Beijing’s orbit — has come. President Trump seems to enjoy upending the conventions and restraint of his predecessors. He called himself “the chosen one” when it comes to his trade war with China. He acknowledged the sarcasm behind the reference, but his intent was clear and correct: There was bipartisan consensus in the U.S. for years before he took office that China was taking unfair advantage of global trade agreements and stealing foreign intellectual property. While his predecessors of both parties talked a lot about the problem, he has decided to do something about it.

The same might be said about U.S.–Taiwan relations. Presidents since Ronald Reagan have highlighted the importance of the island nation to the United States. Congressional delegations have made frequent visits for the same purpose. A disheartening pattern of behavior has developed in which elected and appointed officials restrain their actions while in office and, after leaving office, visit the island to make high-minded speeches about the need for change. The result of all this is that Taiwan has become more isolated, and its relationship with the U.S. has grown ill-defined. Trump has an opportunity to change that state of affairs for the better, and he should take it.

Therese Shaheen is a businesswoman and CEO of US Asia International. She was the chairman of the State Department’s American Institute in Taiwan from 2002 to 2004.


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