Last week, Taiwan announced a major donation of over seven million face masks to the U.S., Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. In Wisconsin, we experienced this generosity firsthand in the form of 100,000 surgical-grade masks, which will help keep our state healthy. This donation marked the third tranche of substantial international assistance from Taiwan, which stands in stark contrast to behavior of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) throughout the crisis.
The CCP’s contributions to the pandemic have inspired legislation holding the CCP legally liable and rapidly reducing supply-chain dependencies on China. These are solid steps, but in our new Cold War, the strategic center of gravity is not the CCP, but rather our allies and partners. As one Chinese diplomat wrote in 2012, “the core of competition between China and the United States will be to see who has more high-quality friends.”
It’s hard to have a more high-quality friend than Taiwan — a vibrant democracy under intense pressure that deserves our full support.
Unfortunately, support for Taiwan has been inconsistent. Unlike NATO’s crystal-clear Article V collective-defense commitment, the U.S. commitment to Taiwan has been muddled. Since the Carter administration, the United States has adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Once upon a time, proponents of this strategy may have told themselves that they were calming tensions by deterring both sides from precipitous action: Beijing could not count on our restraint if they opted for invasion, while Taipei could not count on our support if they declared independence.
Yet while Taiwan has embraced restrained, responsible statecraft, Beijing has poached Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, used economic leverage to punish Taipei, and engaged in dangerous military provocations with growing frequency. At a broader level, the cross-strait balance of power has shifted in Beijing’s favor thanks to a rapid rise in military spending, and General Secretary Xi Jinping has made clear his intent to annex Taiwan by whatever means necessary. The Chinese military threat to Taiwan is no longer a long-term hypothetical scenario. Rather, it is a dangerous course of action that gets more likely the less we stand up to CCP aggression.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to demonstrate resolve and strengthen our relationship with Taiwan. In 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, making it U.S. policy to allow high-level meetings between U.S. and Taiwanese government officials, including military officers. Earlier this spring, President Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which authorizes the State Department to pursue both carrots and sticks for countries that strengthen or weaken relations with Taiwan. The Trump administration has also regularized and increased arms sales to Taiwan, providing them with F-16s to modernize their aging air force.
Building on this momentum and coming out of the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. should go farther by establishing a multinational COVID-19 task force in Taipei with U.S. scientific and diplomatic participation. When conditions permit, Secretary Pompeo could visit Taipei to give an address at the new American Institute in Taiwan on Taiwan’s role in helping humanity see through the CCP’s lies and defeat the coronavirus. Congress should also invite President Tsai to address a joint session of Congress. Both Congress and the White House should push for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization. An early test will come on May 18, when WHO member states are set to vote on Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Assembly.
Regardless of how that vote turns out, it is time to end our policy of strategic ambiguity with Taiwan, because there is nothing ambiguous about the CCP’s designs on Taiwan. As Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger outlined in a remarkable speech, “The cliché that Chinese people can’t be trusted with democracy was . . . the most unpatriotic idea of all. Taiwan today is a living repudiation of that threadbare mistruth.” The CCP knows this, and it is why they are increasing pressure against Taiwan on all fronts.
But just as Taiwan’s very existence calls into question the CCP’s legitimacy, so too would the invasion, absorption, or coercion of a democratic partner call into question the seriousness of American defense commitments. Regional allies such as Japan and Australia would nervously ask themselves whether they too would be abandoned under the wrong circumstances. By taking Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army Navy would have a foothold to turn Japan’s flank and break out of the first island chain, adding Taiwan’s numerous foundries to China’s and gaining a near-monopoly on global microelectronics production in the process.
In order to prevent this from happening, the U.S. must provide a full-throated defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Now is the time for a declaratory statement of policy committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan. While this approach is not without risk, as we have learned painfully from decades of failed policy toward the CCP, the greatest risk of all comes from complacency.
It is time to stand with Taiwan.