Taiwan’s Crucial Role in America’s Pivot to the Pacific
Actions and statements by the Chinese government make it abundantly clear that its objective is to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant economic, military, and political power. As explained in the May 2019 issue of Trends, China’s doctrine of “tianxia” envisions a world with no sovereign nations other than China. The western concept of nation states codified in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, is seen as artificial and temporary by the Chinese leadership. And consequently, a hegemonic China will never be content to exist within the “world order” recognized for the past 300 years.
When china was admitted to the world economy in the late 70s, it was poor, uneducated, and militarily weak; it played by our rules because it had no choice. But as it’s grown stronger, it has increasingly reasserted the values that characterized imperial and Maoist China. Since the rise of Xi Jinping, it has increasingly violated WTO trade rules, aggressively militarized the South China Sea, and provocatively suppressed human rights. And these are just a few of the symptoms of its unwillingness to play by accepted international rules.
When Jimmy Carter announced on December 15, 1978 that formal relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States had been established, Beijing demanded that the United States end relations with Taiwan and withdraw from its security treaty with the island state.
However, in light of Beijing’s unwillingness to pledge to settle issues peacefully with Taiwan, Congress passed The Taiwan Relations Act which stated that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means . . . would be of grave concern to the United States.” And, to support that policy, the United States was “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “maintain the capacity . . . to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”
The Taiwan Relations Act was also intended to allow the people of Taiwan and the United States to remain in close partnership. Over time, however, successive U.S. Administrations have increasingly narrowed those contacts.
Now, 40 years after The Taiwan Relations Act was signed, a completely different geostrategic environment faces the United States in Asia. The Cold War is long over and so too the justification for using China as a card to be played against the Soviet Union. Also over is the hope that somehow economic engagement with China would gradually, but inevitably, lead China down the road to political reform and to becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. To the contrary, as its economy has grown, China has used its increased resources to engage in a quarter-of-a-century long military build-up that has led to a worrisome change in the region’s balance of power and an assertion of Chinese power in the South and East China Seas.
Specifically, since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (or DPP) was elected president of Taiwan in January 2016, China has launched a sustained pressure campaign against the island. Unlike its rival, the KMT party, the DPP is not even “nominally” committed to reunification with China and does not accept that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are part of “one China.” Beijing finds this unacceptable and has embraced a three-part strategy to undermine Taiwan.
The first part involves weakening Taiwan internally by:
- Limiting the number of Chinese tourists who can travel to Taiwan;
- Destroying food imports from Taiwan not labeled as made in the “Taiwan Area of China;” and,
- Introducing the so-called “31 measures” or incentives for Taiwanese students and professionals to study, work, live and invest in China, thereby, increasing the “brain drain” from the island.
The second part involves isolating Taiwan by:
- Demanding that foreign companies like Marriott, United Airlines, and others amend web pages to reflect Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China;
- Suspending cross-strait communications between Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council;
- Barring Taiwan’s representatives from attending annual international meetings of regulatory bodies such as the Civil Aviation Organization, INTERPOL, and the World Health Organization; and,
- Forcing countries such as Gambia, Panama, and the Dominican Republic to sever relations with Taiwan before establishing relations with China.
The third part involves unsettling Taiwan’s security by:
- Unilaterally announcing new commercial flight paths over the Taiwan Strait in violation of previous agreements with Taiwan;
- Frequently sailing China’s aircraft carrier through the Strait;
- Launching at least 300 cyber-attacks on Taiwanese government agencies; and,
- Regularly circling the island with military aircraft forcing Taiwan to scramble its aging fleet of fighter jets.
For the past forty years, Taiwan suffered as the United States tried to “normalize” China into the world order, which China had stubbornly resisted under Imperial rule as well as Maoist doctrine. Presidents from Carter to Obama assumed that an affluent China integrated into the world economic system would contribute to the advance of democracy, stability and global well-being, much as post-war Japan and Taiwan have done. Under U.S. policy, it was believed that that this would eventually enable the peaceful and harmonious absorption of Taiwan into a democratic China. However, the past decade has seen China becoming more aggressive, repressive, and hostile to international norms of conduct.
In this context, Taiwan’s independence and security is now particularly important to Washington. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of the Ukraine and Georgia, coupled with China’s destabilizing actions in the South China Sea and undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy, Taiwan has become a key test of U.S. resolve in supporting partners in the face of “great power” pressure.
Beyond that, Taiwan is important in its own right as a thriving democracy and major U.S. trading partner. And perhaps more significantly, the island is critical in the region’s balance of power, sitting between two U.S. treaty allies: Japan and the Philippines. Furthermore, the “sea gateways” to the broader Pacific and America’s base in Guam lie to the north and south of the island. In a crisis, Taiwan could become an unsinkable Aircraft Carrier, much like Britain in World War II, as well a key partner in containing the Chinese military within the “first island chain.” Therefore, solidifying this alliance could effectively, prevent China from exerting significant reach into the Western Pacific and enable U.S. allies to control China’s flow of indispensable imports and exports.
Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.
First, the United States will ratify a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement by 2021.
This is part of a broader U.S. strategy to encourage partners to pursue economic decoupling from mainland China in sensitive sectors. Today, Taiwanese economic dependence on the mainland is a significant national security challenge for them. Deepening trade and investment ties to the United States and other partners will be key to Taiwan’s continued independent existence by making it more difficult for Beijing to utilize economic coercion to interfere in domestic Taiwanese politics. Since the U.S. trade war with China is becoming one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement, expect Congress to encourage the Trump Administration to accept the Tsai government’s offer to resolve longstanding irritants in the U.S.-Taiwan trade relationship and begin negotiations on a free trade agreement as quickly as possible.
Second, the President will issue an executive order updating guidelines to ensure that U.S. and Taiwanese officials of all ranks, including the respective national security agencies and militaries, can meet to discuss issues of mutual interest.
The Taiwan Relations Act states that Congress intended to authorize “the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” Yet while business and cultural ties have continued to flourish, official interactions have become limited because of the caution of Administrations under both American political parties. And while Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have met with Taiwanese officials, including the island’s Presidents, on U.S. soil and in Taipei, Executive Branch visits are overwhelmingly limited to working-level officials. The rules governing these contacts are not a matter of law but are set by State Department guidelines that can be modified at any time. In another easy, but important step, Congress should make the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, who is our de facto ambassador in Taipei, a Senate-confirmed political position.
Third, the United States will take steps to enforce the Taiwan Relations Act’s declaration that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be “of grave concern to the United States.”
Given China’s military buildup across from Taiwan and its now routine air, naval, and missile deployments designed to bully Taiwan, the Pentagon will invite the Taiwanese military to participate in exercises to increase the former’s proficiency in combined operations and to ensure that the two forces are able to operate effectively together should the need arise.
Fourth, the U.S. will respond to China’s military buildup and its provocative maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait by dramatically increasing its military assistance to Taiwan.
Because of American accommodation of China, Taiwan’s Air Force has become antiquated and it needs to be credibly upgraded, near-term. Discussions are already underway. The latest F-16V aircraft with state-of-the-art armament & electronics can be delivered quickly. At the average price paid for these jets by other allies, selling Taiwan 200 of them would offset this year’s U.S. Trade deficit with the country. Even more effective for sending a message to China, will be selling Taiwan 10-to-15 F-35Bs each year, accompanied by sales of the state-of-the-art Aegis Ashore missile system that is being deployed in Japan and Europe. This would reassure our allies in Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, as well as sending a clear message to the Chinese. Best of all, this will generate big revenues for U.S. Defense contractors, while undercutting a hostile power. And,
Fifth, the United States will make clear to its partners and allies that promoting ties and cooperation with Taiwan is a priority for U.S. foreign policy.
In keeping with Trump administration policy, this priority will be considered when Washington assesses annual foreign aid budgets. As mentioned earlier, Beijing has put Taipei under increasing pressure by closing off its international support network. For instance, it has attempted to poach Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies and has used its growing clout in many international organizations to block the Taiwanese from being represented in international organizations on issues such as health, law enforcement, and civil aviation. Since 1949, Americans across all economic strata have engaged in friendship and exchanges with Taiwan. Congress intended the Taiwan Relations Act to preserve these ties and honor the sacrifices previous generations of Americans made to Taiwan’s success. At a time when many wonder whether the world will be remade in China’s image, it’s important for us to support “the other China,” which is economically vibrant, raucously democratic, pro-American, and peaceful toward its neighbors.
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2. The Washington Post. May 18, 2016. Gary J. Schmitt. It’s time to ditch the ‘one China’ fiction and normalize relations with Taiwan.
3. AEIdeas. March 27, 2019 Michael Mazza. Senators introduce Taiwan Assurance Act in move to review US-Taiwan relations.
4. AEIdeas. January 24, 2018. Michael Mazza. Senators introduce Taiwan Assurance Act in move to review US-Taiwan relations.
5. AEIdeas. May 9, 2019. Michael Mazza. Alignments in US and Taiwan foreign policy pressures from maximum pressure, universal values, to Venezuela.
6. AEIdeas. April 10, 2019. Michael Mazza. What is the US role in countering Chinese Communist Party influence operations in Taiwan?
7. AEIdeas. March 13, 2019. Michael Mazza. Assessing the utility of new fighter aircraft for Taiwan’s defense needs.
8. The National Interest. January 19, 2018. Michael Mazza & Gary Schmitt. The F-35: How Taiwan could really push back against China.
9. AEIdeas. August 22, 2018. Gary J. Schmitt. US to Taiwan: ‘The problem is us.’
10. AEIdeas. May 9, 2018. Michael Mazza. How Beijing pressures Taiwan.