Vol. 2, Issue 42
The Global Taiwan Brief Volume 2, Issue 42
One Year after the Trump-Tsai Phone Call
By: Russell Hsiao
The 19th CCP Congress Report: Goodbye to Jiang’s Eight Points?
By: David G. Brown
Taiwan Needs to Urgently Upgrade Deterrence and Defense
By: Shirley Kan
The First Year: Congress and US-Taiwan Relations in the Trump Administration
By: John J. Tkacik
US-Taiwan Relations a year after Tsai-Trump Phone Call: Cross-Strait relations and International Space
By: Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret)
One Year after the Trump-Tsai Phone Call
Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
In the annals of US-Taiwan relations, December 2 came and went this year with little pomp and circumstance. The date will forever mark, however, the anniversary of the first phone call between President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen. Indeed, just a little before a month after Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States, the president-elect accepted a congratulatory phone call from the democratically-elected leader of Taiwan. After the convention-breaking phone call became public, many commentators lamented the undoing of decades of careful diplomacy and US policy towards cross-Strait relations, and expected the worst.
One year after the phone call, it remains to be seen what substantive aspects of US policy towards Taiwan—which is based on the Taiwan Relations Act, Six Assurances, Three Communiqués, and the US “One-China” policy—have, as pundits were predicting, changed. In this special issue of the Global Taiwan Brief, we invited four experts to assess the continuities and changes in US-Taiwan relations in terms of defense cooperation, international space, the role of Congress, and Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan, one year after the phone call. The articles cover what has happened, could happen, and perhaps, most importantly, should happen to enhance US-Taiwan relations.
In spite of earlier concerns that Taiwan would be used as a “bargaining chip,” due to the new president’s transactional nature, there are several aspects of what has actually happened in the past year worth highlighting:
In matters related to defense, at Asia’s premier international security dialogue, the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in June, the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, issued an unprecedented statement affirming that: “The Department of Defense remains steadfastly committed to working with Taiwan and with its democratic government to provide it with necessary defensive articles, which is consistent with the US’ obligation as set out in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).” That same month, the Trump administration notified Congress of the authorization of US$ 1.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.
With respect to Taiwan’s international space, Taipei and Washington have been working closely together to enhance the former’s engagement with the international community by leveraging the island’s capabilities in functional areas of expertise to assist third-party countries across the world. The mechanism—known as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF)—has held 10 workshops since 2011 in areas including education, e-commerce, energy, environmental protection, humanitarian assistance, public health and women’s empowerment. According to one press report, more than 200 representatives from over 30 countries have attended these workshops. Three workshops were held in 2017 alone. Since Trump’s inauguration in January, the two sides have held workshops in April, November, and December on issues ranging from public health and fighting infectious diseases, promoting women’s entrepreneurship in technology, and bridging the digital divide, respectively.
On her international state visits across the world, it is customary for the Taiwan president to make transit stops in the United States. In the past year, Tsai has made transit stops in Houston, San Francisco, Miami, and Los Angeles; under the Trump administration, she made two “transit” stops in Hawaii and Guam that GTI Adviser Shirley Kan observed have become more “visit-like” over time.
Trade and Economic Cooperation
In June, Taiwan led the second largest international delegation to participate in the fourth SelectUSA Investment Summit organized by the Department of Commerce. Taiwan’s delegation—its largest ever, with 140 delegates from 84 companies—was second only to the Chinese delegation, with 155 members, and ahead of Japan’s 121 delegates. As the United States’ 10th largest goods-trading partner with $65.4 billion in total goods traded during 2016, Taiwan’s trade surplus with the United States was valued at $13.27 billion in 2016. At the same time, the United States enjoyed a surplus in trade in services of $4.2 billion. Taiwan’s percentage share of the total US trade deficit accounted for 1.81 percent—by comparison, China commands the lion’s share of the US trade deficit at 47.24 percent. At the summit, Tsai’s representative, Ho Mei-yueh (何美玥), announced that new investments from Taiwan into the United States could possibly top $34 billion.
Despite the United States withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the political stars in Taipei and Washington seemed more aligned than ever before to upgrade US-Taiwan trade relations. USTR representative Robert Lighthizer signaled this during his nomination hearing, where he unequivocally stated, “I intend to develop a trade and investment policy that promotes a stronger bilateral relationship with Taiwan.” Ambassador Lighthizer also noted that the United States will “examine the prospect of additional negotiations with Taiwan.” He added, “Recognizing that foreign investment from Taiwan and elsewhere can create more jobs in the United States and increase U.S. economic growth and competitiveness, I intend to develop a trade and investment policy that promotes foreign investment into the United States that advances these objectives.” Yet, scheduling for the 11th Taiwan Investment and Framework Agree (TIFA) talks have stalled, ostensibly due to an absence of a counterpart at USTR, which is usually performed at the deputy trade representative level. Established in 1994, TIFA is the primary bilateral mechanism for trade dialogue between Taiwan and the United States. The last TIFA meeting was held in October 2016.
In part because of some of these reassuring signals, President Tsai has been able to remain steady in her commitment to maintaining the “status quo” in relations with the PRC. The recent saber-rattling comments made by a Chinese diplomat in Washington, DC, Li Kexin (李克新), a minister in the PRC Embassy in DC, who threatened that a US naval vessel port call to Taiwan—a feasibility study of which was called for in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018—will trigger the Anti-Secession Law and the PLA will thus use military force to unify Taiwan, stands in stark contrast to Tsai’s measured and restrained style.
Therefore, it should perhaps be no surprise that while grudgingly agreeing to the 1982 Communiqué, President Reagan—as the late Ambassador Harvey Feldman noted—“was disturbed by its possible effect on Taiwan and put little trust in Chinese promises to adhere to a peaceful solution.” Indeed, as guidance for policy in future administrations, he placed a secret memorandum in the National Security Council files that read:
The U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy. In addition, it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.
With the latest threat of invasion made by a Chinese diplomat on US soil, Beijing has shown time after time that its stated commitment to a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait relations is unreliable. Threatening the invasion of Taiwan for an act entirely consistent with US policy is also a disproportionate response intended to coerce Taiwan and dictate US policy. To be sure, the past year has been fraught with uncertainties, but US-Taiwan relations have seen steady tangible improvements under the Trump administration. As Beijing appears to be hardening its stance against Taiwan, there is both the need and urgency to enhance not only the quantitative but also the qualitative aspects of Taiwan’s security.
The main point: One year after the phone call, US-Taiwan relations have seen steady tangible improvements. The Chinese diplomat’s saber-rattling calls into doubt Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful solution, there is a need to focus on not only the quantitative but also the qualitative aspects of Taiwan’s security.
 For full text of the communiqué, see Shirley A. Kan, “China/Taiwan: Evolution of the ‘One China’ Policy-Key Statements from Washington, Beijing and Taipei,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, September 7, 2006, p. 41.
CCP Congress Report: Goodbye to Jiang’s Eight Points?
David G. Brown is a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
On October 18, General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered his work report to the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Taiwan policy section of the 19th Congress report did not portend any significant change in policy direction for Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan. It indicated that Taiwan policy is not an urgent priority issue for General Secretary Xi Jinping and is likely to remain a lower priority so long as President Tsai Ing-wen continues not to explicitly reject Beijing’s “One-China” principle.
The Congress report said that Beijing’s goal would continue to be promoting the complete unification of the country through the policies of “peaceful unification” and “one country, two systems.” That was entirely as expected. However, the report failed to reaffirm former General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s Eight Points. That was an unusual omission. Jiang’s Eight Points had been mentioned in each previous Party Congress report since it was first issued over 20 years ago. Given the thoroughness with which Congress reports are drafted—this could not be an inadvertent omission.
Jiang’s Eight Points were contained in the message “Continue to Promote the Reunification of the Motherland” (為促進祖國統一大業的完成而繼續奮鬥) issued on January 30, 1995. As Jiang Zemin was then the CCP general secretary and the document included eight points, it became known informally as Jiang’s Eight Points. The document is important because it is the most authoritative statement of the content of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) framework for Taiwan’s “reunification” with China. It was issued at the time of the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Shimonoseki and when Beijing hoped that the reversion of Hong Kong in 1997 and of Macau in 1999 would lead to progress towards Taiwan’s unification with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Eight Points were a subject of some controversy at the time. Those who favored a hard line toward then President Lee Teng-hui questioned the wisdom of making what some considered overly generous terms for reunification.
It is not clear to the author why the usual reference to the Eight Points was not included. It is possible it reflected strains in Xi’s relations with Jiang, who has sought to continue exercising influence at a time when Xi is demanding loyalty. Xi undoubtedly believes he is a more important leader, as was reflected in Xi’s thought being incorporated in the Party Constitution. Omitting the Eight Points can be seen as a way of diminishing Jiang’s importance in shaping cross-Strait policy in the new Xi era.
Another possible explanation is that the leadership believed it was not appropriate to include a reference to an official document addressing unification terms at a time when Beijing’s most urgent concern is to deter the DPP administration from steps toward de jure independence. The 19th Congress report also omitted the 18th Congress report’s call for political talks, reportedly in recognition that there was no prospect for such talks with Taipei under President Tsai Ing-wen. If this was the case, then it is possible that the Eight Points will reappear when the prospects for political talks on “reunification” again exist.
A further explanation may be that the leadership believes that circumstances have changed decisively since 1995. China’s economic, diplomatic and military powers are vastly stronger. Therefore, in the “New era of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (新時代中國特色社會主義思想), Beijing has the ability to play a more confident and assertive role in shaping events. In these new circumstances, the relatively generous offer made in 1995 may no longer be seen as appropriate. If this is the case, the omission should be read as a sign that the Eight Points are dead.
Most often there is more than one reason for a critical decision. The omission of the Eight Points probably reflects a combination of these three factors. Taken together, they indicate that it is unlikely the Eight Points will reappear in future major documents.
The Eight Points are also important because they were the most authoritative statement of Beijing’s position on post-unification security matters on Taiwan. The document stated that Taiwan “may also maintain its armed forces,” and “the Central Government will not station troops or send administrative personnel there.” These were important ways in which the offer to Taiwan differed from the arrangements for Hong Kong and Macau under the “one country, two systems” framework. Those statements were among the reasons why some thought the Eight Points too generous. As the PLA has become more capable and more ambitious in this century, it has become increasingly doubtful that the military, or the political leadership, would accept such limitations on the PLA.
So if the Eight Points have been consigned to history by Xi Jinping, then Taiwan and the United States will face the prospect that Beijing may eventually demand Taipei’s agreement to stationing the PLA in Taiwan. It is impossible to imagine that any government in Taipei would freely agree to that condition. Consequently, those commitments from the Eight Points are significant and must not be forgotten.
Over the past decade, China and the United States have moved into a strategic competition in the western Pacific. In this context, Beijing should understand that the United States has a vital interest both in the peaceful settlement of cross-Strait issues and in the PLA not being able to project power from bases in Taiwan. If circumstances change and “reunification” becomes a topic for active discussion, the prospect of a PLA presence on Taiwan will emerge as a major issue between the United States and China.
These observations on the Eight Points may seem academic because there is no prospect at present for even preliminary political talks or an interim peace accord let alone progress toward unification between Taiwan and the PRC. Yet, the PLA’s power and ambitions are a reality. Their ambitions may well have contributed to the disappearance of the Eight Points, and the PLA’s more frequent and sophisticated exercises in the western Pacific are a challenge to the United States and a threat to Taiwan. In turn, these exercises are stimulating reactions in Washington including calls for joint US-Taiwan military exercises and reciprocal naval port calls, which Beijing will certainly oppose. All these threads are interrelated and leaders in Washington, Taipei, and Beijing should be prepared for tensions to rise before they cool.
The main point: The omission in the 19th Party Congress report of Jiang’s Eight Points likely indicates that the CCP leadership wishes to forget Jiang’s statement that the PLA would not be stationed in Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” framework. At some future time, the question of PLA forces in Taiwan is likely to emerge as a major issue among Washington, Beijing and Taipei.
Taiwan Needs to Urgently Upgrade Deterrence and Defense
Shirley Kan is a retired Specialist in Asian Security Affairs who worked for Congress at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and a member of GTI’s Advisory Board.
The US-Taiwan partnership remains robust under Presidents Donald Trump and Tsai Ing-wen, who could understand each other well. Both inherited security challenges. Trump places priority on defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and dealing forcefully with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s threats. Tsai inherited an erosion in Taiwan’s self-defense against China. Taiwan also has an opportunity, one that might never arise again in such positive, triple alignment: support for a stronger Taiwan in the Congress, Trump Administration, and US Pacific Command (PACOM). Yet, concerns are rising about Taiwan’s insufficient urgency for deterrence and defense against coercion and conflict. Trump and Tsai could carry on this conceivable conversation.
Trump-Tsai Phone Call
Trump: President Tsai, you lead a magnificent democracy in the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan has never had a better friend in the US than now. We have a golden opportunity for a fantastic economic and security partnership. Taiwan is our 10th largest trading partner. I am leading the strongest ever pressure for North Korea’s denuclearization. Taiwan has banned all trade with that menace and has a tremendous US radar for missile defense. Taiwan stands in solidarity with freedom-loving nations. In October, you reached out to China for a breakthrough—an excellent speech. Taiwan has bought billions of dollars in U.S. weapons—the world’s best!
Tsai: President Trump, Taiwan appreciates the strategic partnership with American friends.
Trump: I want the US military to be at the strongest level and defense spending at $700 billion. But international security is a shared burden. Invest in your military. You won one election. Hopefully, Taiwan will hold future elections and not see the end of your beautiful democracy!
Tsai: What do you mean? Taiwan’s people defend our democracy. But we get different, conflicting answers when we ask for assistance from your State Department, particularly for our Indigenous Defense Submarine (IDS) program.
Trump: I’ll look into that, believe me. I did tell Congress that I would go ahead with $1.4 billion in arms sales—long overdue. But as a fantastic friend, I must be honest. You inherited tremendous problems—like I did. We discuss with your Defense Ministry—in many meetings—that its budget is not sufficient. It’s worse than par. Right after you stopped in Hawaii, I stopped there for my long trip to Asia. The great Admiral Harris at PACOM told me his formula for deterrence: Capability x Resolve x Signaling = Deterrence. You need all three. Taiwan must show the will to protect your prosperity and homeland. It’s peace through strength. Defend against threats and stand strong against tyrants. You are running out of time. The longer you wait, the bigger the danger, and the fewer options for Taiwan. Thank you. Terrific call.
The Most Serious Threat Since 1949
This scenario of a plausible, second exchange reflects rising concerns about three gaps. There is a gap between Taiwan’s leadership and some military officers who worry about the most serious threat since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. Taiwan’s actions do not adequately match its rhetoric for credible deterrence and defense. The United States has a gap with Taiwan on the urgency to upgrade armed forces against the PRC.
Remarkably, a reminder to Taiwan in 2005 is still salient. At that year’s US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless issued a critical speech. The US stressed that the Taiwan Relations Act entails mutual obligations and intends for Taiwan to fulfill its obligation for sufficient self-defense. The United States warned Taiwan’s people, “we cannot help defend you if you cannot defend yourself.”
Taiwan lost at least a decade to modernize its military. President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) resumed cross-Strait dialogue but weakened Taiwan’s defense. He ordered the shift from conscription to a volunteer force. However, a volunteer force needs bigger budgets, and Ma failed to grow defense spending to 3 percent of GDP (Taiwan’s own objective). The Pentagon reported that in 2016, Taiwan’s defense budget totaled $10.5 billion, compared to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) budget of $32.8 billion. Both Taiwan and the ROK confront existential threats.
Taiwan has Lost Time
Tsai became President with high—but as yet unmet—expectations to reverse the erosion in Taiwan’s defense. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) indicated boosts in the budget for strategic, military, political, and economic reasons, given its stress on indigenous defense programs. Partisan politics no longer offer an excuse, since Tsai’s party also won control of the Legislative Yuan (LY). The DPP might be defensive against political criticism that Taiwan, under Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) administration, did not face China’s threat. In reality, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continued to focus on Taiwan despite any lower tension, as the Pentagon warned in every report to Congress about China’s military power from 2009 to 2016.
With louder alarms, Washington is waking up Taipei from complacency. Last June, National Security Council Advisor Matt Pottinger and other officials gave a blunt message to Taiwan’s visiting former officials. The US side reminded Taiwan that its security has depended on China’s restraint and possible US intervention, but Taiwan needs to rely on self-defense. US officials posed a question for Taiwan: “what about four or eight years from now?” They commented that Taiwan’s defense budget has fallen no matter which party was in power and that Taiwan’s shift away from conscription was a mistake.
After more warnings to Taiwan in the summer, the Defense Department publicized the Administration’s coordinated speech in October. David Helvey, who was then Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, pointedly pressed Taiwan. At a US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, he purposefully cautioned Taiwan that the PLA’s growing capabilities, large-scale exercises, and increased ability to conduct joint operations “present a growing threat of a credible invasion force.” He warned that China is building the capability to coerce and, if directed by the Communist Party of China (CPC), to “compel unification by force.” Also, “today, it is incumbent upon Taiwan to spend more on defense; it is incumbent on Taiwan to invest, modernize, train, and equip its armed forces with a 21st century deterrent,” he urged. The KMT refused to send a representative to the conference.
In other words, Taiwan cannot fight the PLA of ten years ago. Frustration about Taiwan’s insufficient military manpower and money is focused on instability, not US arms sales (as Taiwan wrongly assumes).
The “Pottery Barn Rule”
Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush about war in Iraq: if you break it, you own it. Even if Tsai did not “break” Taiwan’s defense, she “owns” it now.
Moreover, Taiwan must deal with dangerous developments. In 2015, Xi Jinping ordered structural reforms to improve the PLA’s joint operations. The PLA’s new Strategic Support Force (SSF) could target Taiwan, especially with cyber operations, according to the Pentagon. As part of Xi’s strengthening of power at the 19th Congress of the CPC in October, he masterminded the PLA’s largest purges of senior officers. The younger, more professional PLA will accelerate advancement of potential war-fighting for unification as Xi’s legacy.
The DPRK regime has increased its ability to threaten catastrophe. The Trump administration departed from past “business as usual” by leading intense international pressure against the DPRK and its patron, the PRC regime. In Taiwan, some ask wrong questions about whether the tension with the DPRK is good (foolish) or bad for Taiwan (fearful of a US-PRC deal). Actually, Taiwan faces different precarious problems. Taiwan is close to the DPRK’s and PRC’s dangers, while the US military stretches its readiness from Afghanistan to Africa to Asia.
Policy Impasses and Options
There is progress. The United States and Taiwan have developed multiple channels of candid, constructive communication, especially around the time of Tsai’s stop in Honolulu in October. Taiwan’s leadership recognizes requirements in the short term, not just requests for the long term (such as next-generation F-35B fighters). Taiwan asks about programs in which it should invest. Helvey already articulated US support for some of Taiwan’s indigenous systems as asymmetric deterrents to the PLA’s invasion force. These systems include land-based and sea-based anti-ship cruise missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems, small fast attack boats, unmanned aerial vehicles, coastal defense artillery, and naval mines.
Still, Taipei and Washington need straight talk about military training or exercises, equipment, and personnel (the paramount factor). With Tsai’s requested 3.9 percent uptick from 2017’s budget, Taiwan’s 2018 defense budget would be NT$331.8 billion (US$11 billion)—only 1.9 percent of GDP—if not cut in the LY. Taiwan could raise readiness of more reserves, conscripts, and volunteers. Taiwan could see that its Navy needs MH-60R helicopters. Dealing with Ching Fu Shipbuilding’s case, Taiwan needs to protect defense technology and the honor of military officers who devoted their careers to their country. The State Department could end obfuscation and convey credible, consistent decisions about assistance for Taiwan’s IDS program. The United States and Taiwan could agree about Taiwan’s Air Force, including its decisions on outdated F-5 fighters, expensive Mirage fighters, and trainers. One option is to add to the US upgrade of Taiwan’s existing F-16A/B fighters to F-16V fighters by deciding on a program of new F-16 Block 70/72 fighters. As Helvey acknowledged, “Taiwan still requires some major end-items.”
The main point: Taiwan’s people are not doing enough with urgency for deterrence and defense against China, risking democracy, destabilization, and divergence in bilateral cooperation with the United States.
The First Year: Congress and US-Taiwan Relations in the Trump Administration
John Tkacik directs the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a retired US Foreign Service Officer who served at US embassies in both Taipei and Beijing, consulates in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and in the Department of State, where he was Chief of China Analysis in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Tkacik is a member of GTI’s Advisory Board.
It was 68 years ago this week that Congressional influence on America’s Taiwan policy was born amid the rubble of the Truman Administration’s China policy. The moment arrived as Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s silver, four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster roared off the runway from Chengdu on December 10, 1949, bundling him off to permanent exile in Taipei. At once, the United States Congress became the single most important factor in executive branch considerations of Taiwan policy; though sometimes negative, for the most part Congressional involvement was constructive and mercifully nonpartisan.
This first year of the Trump Administration has seen democratic Taiwan sustaining its supremely positive image on Capitol Hill. By contrast, Congress contemplates “the peaceful rise” of Taiwan’s nemesis, China, as it might welcome Godzilla’s “peaceful rise” from the waters of the Pacific.
Indeed, Congress regards Taiwan as America’s most successful partner democracy in Asia. Less publicized is Capitol Hill’s view of Taiwan as an American “security cooperation partner”—perhaps “the United States’ largest security cooperation partner in Asia”—a reputation that a year ago captured the president-elect’s imagination.
On December 2, 2016, Donald Trump engaged in a cordial and unprecedented phone call with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen (it was the first direct contact of any kind between an elected US president and a Taiwan leader since President Eisenhower visited Taipei in 1960). Horror spread throughout the professional foreign policy class and technicolor explosions of the Beltway’s commentariat ensued. Mr. Trump then tweeted his eminently reasonable opinion: “Interesting how the US sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.” Of course, over the seven years preceding the Trump-Tsai phone call, the executive branch had “notified Congress of more than $14 billion in arms sales.” Unlike most American pundits, the president-elect had an unnuanced, down-to-earth appreciation of what a fine “security cooperation partner” Taiwan was.
Congress’s role commenced shortly thereafter. In mid-January, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson found multiple briefing pages of nice things to say about Taiwan in his confirmation colloquies with the Senate Foreign Relations committee. And, while Mr. Tillerson wasn’t wholly attentive to the arcana of Taiwan relations (Mr. Tillerson garbled President Reagan’s “Six Assurances” into the “Six Issues Accord”), he was tough on China and its aggressiveness in the South China Sea—so tough that Beijing’s newspapers asked “Is Tillerson’s bluster just a bluff for Senate?”
Beijing is very tetchy when it comes to Capitol Hill’s warm regard for Taiwan, particularly because the Taiwanese-American community has been effective in mobilizing lawmakers’ influence. The Congressional Taiwan Caucus and Senate Taiwan Caucus, established in 2002 and 2003, have grown into the largest country-based Congressional caucus (220 members as of September 2017) and second largest Senate caucus (31 members, second only to the Senate India Caucus founded by Hillary Clinton). This level of involvement reflects an astounding depth of bipartisan Hill support enjoyed by Taiwan.
Throughout 2017, Capitol Hill sensed a new White House friendliness toward Taiwan, but President Trump’s deal-making, “transactional” approaches to Beijing on trade, maritime freedoms and North Korea were unsettling. Prior to the Trump-Xi Jinping summit at Mar-a-Lago, 147 members of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus wrote respectfully to the President on April 5, 2017 to “ensure that the United States continues to adhere to the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances.” On June 15, the Republican-chaired Asia subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings because of worries that the “administration has inadvertently added to the confusion with mixed messages in the complex area of Taiwan policy.”
Prominent members of both chambers introduced legislation encouraging broader US official interactions with Taiwan’s government, acts variously called the “Taiwan Travel Act” and the “Taiwan Security Act.” Generally, these high-minded bills were feints to slip more subtle and substantive improvements on US-Taiwan military exchanges and technical “debundling” of Taiwan defense sales notifications (Sections 1259 and 1270) into a [semi veto-proof] National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 Conference Report. Which is a jargon-laden way of saying, “Congress insists that Taiwan be managed as a normal US security cooperation partner in Asia.”
In past administrations, Congress tried to nudge the White House toward a more accommodating posture on the US-Taiwan security relationship, only to be met with stouthearted resistance at the National Security Council and the State Department. By contrast, Trump Administration nominees to key Asia positions have long paper trails of scholarly analyses and op-eds that reflect an eagerness to deepen US-Taiwan defense cooperation.
One such nominee, Randall Schriver, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, has written extensively on Taiwan security issues for his Project 2049 Institute think tank in Arlington, Virginia. On June 23, 2017, eight senators, in an impressive bipartisan national security leadership coalition of four Republicans and four Democrats, adopted his think tank’s recommendations and urged President Trump, in writing, to:
- release pending Taiwan arms sales programs currently awaiting Congressional notification;
- end the practice of “bundling” Taiwan arms sales, and instead establish a regular and routine process whereby notifications would be sent to Congress when ready;
- and quickly and robustly address Taiwan’s significant and legitimate future requirements for new defense capabilities.
These senators cautioned the President against allowing concerns about China to take precedence over support for Taiwan. They also warned that, “China has intensified its economic coercion and military intimidation tactics, thereby stoking cross-Strait tensions and threatening peace and security in the Taiwan Strait. Given these circumstances, our support for Taiwan is more important than ever.”
On June 30, after five months of weighing China’s meager contributions to the denuclearization of North Korea, the Trump Administration notified Congress of another $1.3 billion in sales to Taiwan.
The Senators’ June 2017 letter to President Trump was only the most visible evidence of the Legislative Branch’s influence on US-Taiwan relations in the first year of the Trump Presidency.
By August, Congress’s unabashed promotion of close ties with Taiwan became too much for Beijing. Chinese Ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai (崔天凱), sent formal letters to top House and Senate leaders averring that the Taiwan Travel Act, the Taiwan Security Act and Taiwan provisions in the Defense budget were “provocations against China’s sovereignty, national unity and security interests” and “crossed the ‘red line’ on the stability of the China-US relationship.” It is unclear just what the Chinese ambassador was complaining about. Apparently, most assumed China objected to the bills in principle, but one commentator seemed to think it was because a Senate amendment “mandated” US Navy port calls in Taiwan. Perhaps it was the ambassador’s clever stratagem to take credit for something that was going to happen anyway; all along, the “mandate” language was drafted to be softened in conference, and Ambassador Cui can claim credit that his tough talk cowed the Congress.
Capitol Hill’s most direct influence on foreign and defense policy is in the Senate and its advice and consent role, so it is instructive that the president and his team seem to welcome Congressional input—on Taiwan, at least. The Defense Department seems open as well, given the subcabinet nominations of several appointees with solid Congressional experience. Whether the Department of State is as welcoming is less evident, given the vacuum of nominees for State’s Asia policy posts.
Assistant Secretary of Defense-designate Randall Schriver must have carefully studied the June 23rd letter from the eight key senators. He told his Senate confirmation hearing in November that “I believe the US Government should improve the predictability of arms sales to Taiwan by encouraging Taiwan to submit formal requests for defense articles and services, then responding to those formal requests in a timely fashion.” And when asked about the controversial matter of resuming US Navy “port calls” to Taiwan (after 40 years), he responded:
I have been on the record in published articles supporting both US Navy ship visits to Taiwan, as well as Taiwan navy ship visits to the United States. Such port calls would be entirely consistent with our One China Policy as we define it. … Since we reserve for ourselves the right to define our own One China Policy, commencing US ship visits to Taiwan and vice versa can be included. The benefits of US port calls to Taiwan would fall into the traditional justification for port calls to any other friendly country in the world […]; and to support our political goals of supporting Taiwan and deterring China. [….]
“In foreign policy, Congress proposes and the President disposes”—this is the core Constitutional demarcation of prerogatives. House and Senate committees can hear witnesses, give members of Congress podiums for pontification, and send any number of bills to the floor for votes, but they cannot constitutionally mandate any foreign policy upon an unwilling president, unless, of course, it requires a lot of money. And it is equally difficult, despite such efforts to make it more so as the War Powers Act, to restrain a president from plowing into a policy that the Congress does not want. So it is significant that the President’s nominees on Taiwan policy issues are long-time Asia experts with track records of China-skepticism.
On the whole, Congress over the past ten months has been remarkably supportive of Taiwan and of the Trump Administration’s new directions in its relations with Taiwan.
That said, Congressional views of Taiwan are not all sweetness and roses. One must admit that major US trade interests have their beef with Taipei, including the US National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), Qualcomm, and even ride-share behemoth Uber. And there is surliness in Congress over Taiwan Mega Bank’s lax attention to money laundering. Even members of Congress who generally support Taiwan are lukewarm with regard to Taiwan’s hopes for movement on the “Trade and Investment Framework Agreement” (TIFA) and are less supportive of a separate US-Taiwan bilateral free trade agreement (FTA).
Sixty-eight years ago, Congress slammed the Truman Administration by asking the electorate “Who Lost China?” Taiwan had become a partisan issue, with the Republicans demanding strong US military support for the Island, while the Democrats pointed to the corruption and embezzlement of Chiang’s defeated regime. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 tipped the debate decisively in Chiang’s favor and the impact five months later on the US midterm elections was strong, with Republicans winning 28 House seats and another 5 in the Senate. But since the Eisenhower administration, Congress has engaged with Taiwan in largely constructive and bipartisan ways.
The main point: On the whole, Congress over the past ten months has been remarkably supportive of Taiwan and of the Trump Administration’s new directions in its relations with Taiwan. How US-Taiwan relations, as well as US-China relations, will develop as the Trump presidency unfolds remains to be seen. Thus far, 2017 has been a year of constructive, bipartisan Congressional-Executive support for Taiwan. Despite Congress’s discomfort with the President’s “transactional” approach to Taiwan policy, 2018 may be a year that a “transactional” approach brings dramatic changes to executive branch management of the Taiwan-China balance.
 Coalition members included Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), John Cornyn (R-TX) Senate Majority Whip, James Inhofe (R-OK), Edward Markey (D-MA) ranking minority member of the SFRC subcommittee on East Asia, John McCain (R-AZ) Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) former SFRC Chair, Marco Rubio (R-FL) chair of the Senate committee on Commerce, and Ron Wyden (D-OR) ranking minority member of the Committee on Finance. See http://www.ustaiwandefense.com/us-senators-urge-president-trump-to-support-taiwan-self-defense-capabilities/
 Christopher Nelson, The Nelson Report (June 30, 2017), email newsletter sent to the author. The June 30, 2017 Nelson report cited an official “background brief,” attributable to a “US Government official,” which read: “This afternoon, the Department of State approved and delivered Congressional notifications for several sales to Taiwan cumulatively valued at approximately $1.4 billion. The notifications from DSCA are attached.
- Early Warning Radar Surveillance Technical Support ($400 million)
- AGM-154C Joint Stand-off Weapon (JSOW) ($185.5 million)
- AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation (HARM) Missiles ($147.5 million)
- MK 48 6AT Heavy Weight Torpedoes ($250 million)
- MK 46 to MK-54 Torpedo Upgrade ($175 million)
- SM-2 Missile Components ($125 million)
- AN/SLQ-32A Electronic Warfare (EW) Shipboard Suite Upgrade ($80 million)
US-Taiwan Relations a year after Tsai-Trump Phone Call:Cross-Strait relations and International Space
Stephen M. Young had a 33 year career as an American diplomat, during which he served as Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic, Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, and Consul General to Hong Kong. He is currently retired and living in New Hampshire. Ambassador Young is a member of GTI’s Advisory Board.
In December 2016, Taiwan-watchers were surprised to learn that Taiwan’s leader, President Tsai Ing-wen, had spoken with President-elect Donald Trump over the phone, a congratulatory call initiated by President Tsai. Pundits marveled at the novelty of something that had certainly not taken place for more than 30 years since the decision by President Carter to break diplomatic relations with the island republic and shift the American embassy and diplomatic relations over to Beijing.
When the media jumped on the story of the phone call, Mr. Trump somewhat defensively indicated that it was no big deal. He characterized the exchange as normal; when an international figure calls to congratulate, you take the call. In many respects, that explanation should have sufficed, butut for cognoscenti of cross-Strait matters, this was far from normal practice. Beijing expressed its displeasure, but in a somewhat muted form since it too was trying to adjust to the surprising victory of Mr. Trump in the US elections. Let us remember that pundits and polls had all been predicting that the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was the favorite to win.
Mr. Trump was also a major variant from the normal presidential candidate, having never previously served in government at any level. Nor did he appear to have much experience in dealing with international politics. Instead, he had made his fortune building on his father’s construction business, a path paved by early wealth and connections within the New York business community.
With all this in mind, Chinese President Xi Jinping quickly reached out to the newly elected American president and managed to schedule the first meeting at President Trump’s Florida hotel early this Spring—but not before he requested that President Trump “honor” the US “One-China” policy. During this inaugural tête-à-tête, Xi carefully played to the new American leader’s fragile ego. This set in motion the “state-plus” visit to Beijing that President Trump completed in October 2017.
The White House has also been slower than expected in staffing the new administration with China expertise. Former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad took up his duties as US Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in July. Then Governor Branstad hosted a visit by Xi Jinping in Iowa back in 1985, when the young Chinese official made his first trip to the US as a mid-level agricultural official. The two renewed their acquaintance when then Vice President Xi returned to the US in 2012.
Like his boss in the White House, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had never served in government before taking up his current responsibilities, but has been active in Asian affairs since taking office early this year. There is still no appointed Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Department of State. Experienced Foreign Service Officer (FSO) and China hand Susan Thornton has been Acting Assistant Secretary in the meantime, but lacks the clout of previous political appointees to the position.
The recent nomination of Randall Schriver to the Department of Defense (DoD) Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs would place an experienced Asia hand in this key position. Mr. Schriver knows Taiwan well, and could help focus attention to the island’s defense requirements, once confirmed.
President Tsai has now been in office for a year and a half. Her solid victory in last year’s presidential balloting marked a decisive shift in Taiwan politics previously dominated by the stronger grassroots KMT organization and its plentiful financial resources. Unlike her DPP predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, Tsai garnered a solid majority of the votes cast. Perhaps more importantly, she was also rewarded with the first majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) for her party in Taiwan’s history.
While in office, President Chen struggled to enact his program goals, constantly running up against the unwillingness of the KMT-dominated LY to cooperate with him during his eight years in office. President Tsai thus has significantly greater legislative power than Chen, something that used to be a monopoly held by former KMT Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Ma Ying-jeou.
On the other hand, most pundits predicted rocky cross-Strait relations following President Tsai’s electoral victory. After all, this was coming after eight years of KMT rule under President Ma, whose election was welcomed in Beijing. Perhaps the highlight of Mr. Ma’s presidency, at least in cross-Strait relations, was the November 2015 Singapore meeting between him and PRC President Xi Jinping.
Though not characterized as a formal event and taking place at a neutral site, it was still a significant diplomatic victory for Ma. Senior Taiwan and Chinese political figures had crossed paths at previous international gatherings, such as Asia Development Bank and Asia Pacific Economic Conference, but China and Taiwan’s heads of state had not formally talked with one another since the end of the Chinese Civil War.
After last year’s presidential elections, China quickly made it clear that President Tsai was on probation, with Beijing watching her actions and judging her statements. Cross-Strait economic ties did not dramatically decline, though the number of Chinese tourists visiting the island dropped significantly. One must presume this reflected a new, more hostile attitude toward such links on the part of Beijing. When I visited Taiwan this past summer, friends there told me it had become easier to visit the Palace Museum and other popular tourist sites now that the swarms of mainlanders had decreased. But hotels and airlines undoubtedly took a hit, as presumably was the goal of leaders in Beijing.
One dog that has not barked thus far—at least to the extent many anticipated—has been a sharp drop in formal diplomatic ties between Taiwan and the 20 countries (including the Vatican) that still recognize the island’s sovereignty. True, Panama shifted its embassy from Taipei to Beijing in June 2017. Presumably China could make attractive offers to other diplomatic partners of Taipei if it decided to make this a top priority.
To the extent that cross-Strait competition centers on a struggle over hearts and minds, it may be that Beijing recognizes this would be unpopular with the people of Taiwan. China may also not want the economic burden of picking up on relationships that have benefited materially from formal ties to Taiwan.
In the case of the Vatican, there continues to be concerns on the part of Beijing’s leaders over the influence that institution might hold on the millions of practicing Catholics in China. There is also the longstanding insistence by the Vatican that only the Pope can select bishops, something that the government-controlled process in China currently prevents. Yet it is clear that Rome would like access to all of the practicing Catholics in the PRC. That said, I would not be surprised if one day we read that an arrangement has been reached to permit the Holy See to move its diplomatic mission across the Taiwan Strait.
One would like to think the other “diplomatic partners” of Taiwan are not up for sale, though I am not convinced of that. That said, there is a more important point that I have made in the past to my friends in Taiwan: The truly critical—albeit informal—relationships Taiwan enjoys with countries like the United States, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and other major powers, including the EU, are much more important to the island’s livelihood and survival than the rather modest countries that retain formal diplomatic relations there.
The question arises: is China staying its hand on the question of these diplomatic partners, using the issue as a Sword of Damocles over Taiwan’s future behavior? It is true that President Tsai has been cautious on the hot button issue of a formal declaration of independence, despite a segment of the DPP that favors formalizing the reality that Taiwan already enjoys de facto separation from the mainland and its government. This is a contentious issue within some DPP circles, but I believe for the most part that Taiwan’s leader and her party understand the importance of not rocking the boat on the subject.
President Xi Jinping obtained a strong endorsement for his continued leadership at the recently concluded Party Congress in Beijing. Some believe he has aspirations to stay in office beyond the second five-year term granted to him this fall. The fact that no obvious successor has arisen within the party ranks breaks a tradition dating back to the 1980’s, so Mr. Xi is perhaps at the height of his power now. He has made allusions to resolving the Taiwan issue, but thus far has set no deadline. That said, Mr. Xi has recently suggested that this matter must be resolved before the 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049.
President Trump seemed besotted by the pageantry of Xi Jinping’s “State-plus” hospitality during his recent visit to Beijing. But as far as the public record shows, there was no real discussion of Taiwan or cross-Strait relations during the summit. There could of course have been unreported exchanges, but it seems notable that Mr. Xi did not seek to place some reference to this “core interest” on the record. Referring back to the Tsai-Trump phone exchange a year ago, other than an acknowledgement earlier this year by Mr. Trump to the “One-China” principle—a nod to Beijing— there seems to have been no real follow-up by the American leader to President Tsai’s phone conversation last November.
To sum things up, Taipei and to a lesser degree Beijing have shown prudence and moderation over the past 18 months concerning the freighted issue of cross-Strait relations. President Tsai has not embraced Beijing’s favored concept of the so-called “1992 consensus” (vague as this is) and President Xi has maintained a relatively low-key approach to cross-Strait relations as he has continued to solidify his power. The PRC leader has plenty of other issues to focus on back home. Taiwan’s economy has no doubt suffered from the downturn in tourism and commercial dealings with the mainland, but not in any dramatic fashion.
Barring an unexpected shift in the approach of the two sides, I do not expect things to dramatically deteriorate–or improve–anytime soon. President Tsai has plenty of other matters to focus on, including her drooping poll numbers and the sluggish economy at home. Support for Taipei from Washington, Tokyo, and other close friends will continue. Those who aspire toward a more clear-cut resolution of the cross-Strait relationship will have to curb their enthusiasm. Amorphous as it may seem to outsiders, the fragile relationship between Taiwan and the PRC has survived now for nearly seven decades. That in and of itself should give friends of the island cause for quiet optimism.
The main point: Following his acceptance of President Tsai’s congratulatory phone call in December, 2016, President Trump has reverted to America’s traditionally cautious approach toward cross-Strait relations. President Tsai has resisted pressure from Beijing to embrace the amorphous “1992 consensus.” While it is possible that President Xi could target some of Taiwan’s remaining 20 diplomatic partners, this would only further alienate the people of Taiwan and their government from the PRC.
 In fact Clinton did win the popular vote—by a considerable margin—but fell short of victory when the electoral votes were tallied up. This involved some explanation to international observers of the US constitutional process, which awards victory not to the candidate with the most votes, but the to the person who achieves a majority of the electoral college votes.