Thank you, Ranking Member Sherman and Chairman Yoho, for inviting me to testify before the subcommittee. This is truly an honor for me to be a part of this important and timely proceeding with my co-panelists, whom I deeply respect.
My oral testimony today is a summary of my submitted written testimony. The views I express in this testimony are my own.
It has been over a year now since this subcommittee last held a hearing on Taiwan and a lot has happened since then. I would like to point out three clusters of developments for this subcommittee’s consideration.
First, President Tsai Ing-wen’s historic election in January 2016 as the government’s first female president sets a positive standard for other democracies worldwide. Her administration celebrated its one-year anniversary on May 20. In addition to electing a female head of government, Taiwan’s Supreme Court recently issued a landmark ruling that invalidates a civil code provision prohibiting same-sex unions. This act further raises Taiwan’s profile in the league of progressive and liberal nations.
According to the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, which monitors freedom and democracy worldwide, Taiwan ranked third most free in the Asia-Pacific, only behind Australia and Japan in its “Freedom in the World 2017” report. While no democracy is perfect, democratization has had a moderating effect on Taiwan’s fractious politics, clearly illustrated in the measured policies of the current ruling government and through the opposition-Nationalist Party chairperson election last month.
On the cross-Strait front, political relations between Taipei and Beijing have cooled as the PRC refuses to deal with the Tsai administration unless she accepts the so-called “1992 consensus.” While formal channels between the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council remain shut after Beijing froze government-to-government dialogue back in June 2016, functional channels for coordination between different government agencies remain open.
As a Chinese-speaking democracy, Taiwan has a unique role to play in China’s future. But that role must not come at the expense of the freedom and democracy that the people of Taiwan have fought for and now enjoy. The chilling case of the detained human rights activist, Lee Ming-che (李明哲)—who has been in detention in the PRC since March 19—throws into the sharp relief the impact that China’s non-democratic system has for Taiwan and its people—and also for Hong Kong. As the 2014 student-led protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong illustrate: what happens in Taiwan has a demonstration effect on Hong Kong, and what happens in Hong Kong has a demonstration effect on Taiwan.
Foreign Relations & Diplomatic Space
Despite Taipei’s measured approach to cross-Strait relations, Beijing fired the first salvo that reignited cross-Strait tensions only one month after Tsai Ing-wen was elected president.
In February 2016, the PRC resumed diplomatic ties with Gambia; in December 2016, São Tomé and Príncipe switched diplomatic recognition; in January 2017, Nigeria announced that it was demoting ties with Taiwan by forcing Taipei to move its representative office from Abuja to Lagos.
Panama’s announcement just Tuesday that it has switched diplomatic relations to the PRC is the latest in a series of escalatory steps in Beijing’s enhanced pressure tactics against Taiwan that include economic, military, and also diplomatic coercion. It was only a matter of time before Beijing pulled the trigger despite the Tsai administration’s pledge to maintain the “status quo” in cross-Strait relations.
Taiwan’s informal ties with countries like the United States, Japan, India, Australia, and Singapore are now more important than ever as Beijing squeezes Taiwan’s international and diplomatic space further. Specifically, more efforts need to be made to upgrade Taiwan’s ability to engage the international community by including Taiwan in not only bilateral but also multilateral exchanges to offset Beijing’s coercive full-court press on Taiwan’s international space. Obstructionist behaviors include: blocking Taiwan’s participation in the WHA, INTERPOL, ICAO, and even a process for combatting blood-diamonds.
Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy
In part as a strategic effort to rebalance its foreign relations and economy, the Tsai government has reinvigorated a long-standing policy to diversify its economic outreach, which is currently heavily concentrated in China, to the growing markets in the Indo-Pacific. Through an all-of-government approach, Taiwan is attempting to forge closer economic links as well as deepen people-to-people ties with 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia. The new plan is also the natural outgrowth of demographic trends on the island, as more immigrants come to the country and with more children born of mixed marriages. And just as the United States looked towards Asia in the former administration’s pivot/rebalance strategy, Taiwan is also looking south to capitalize on the growing markets and strategic importance of the region.
Against the backdrop of a growing military imbalance in the Strait, Taiwan has embarked on ambitious measures to strengthen its indigenous defense industries and capabilities. Taipei just released a new military strategy through the Quadrennial Defense Review and reformulated its defense strategy. As a percentage of total government spending, Taiwan currently spends up to 15 percent on defense, and in March, Taiwan’s minister of national defense said that military expenditures would be increased, in an effort to the proverbial 3 percent of gross domestic product target in 2018. In this context, it is worth at least asking ourselves why, in the absence of a mutual defense treaty, does the US demand that Taiwan spend an arbitrary 3 percent of its GDP on defense while expecting less of her other allies and security partners?
Second, we now have a new president in the United States; an unorthodox president who has not only shown that he will not be held back by unnecessary diplomatic norms, but has also demonstrated a willingness to question policy dogmas, and has expressed a penchant for unpredictability.
As president-elect, Trump made an important gesture by taking a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016. This is the first time that the leaders of the United States and Taiwan have spoken by phone, at least since 1979.
For a conversation that lasted no more than 10 minutes and mainly involved an exchange of niceties, the blowback was disproportional and underscores the fragility, as well as complexity, of the US-Taiwan-China relationship.
As the Chairman noted in his opening statement, all of this is occurring against a backdrop of growing regional uncertainty about the current administration’s policies, strategy, and priorities.
The administration has identified North Korea’s nuclear program as the primary threat in East Asia. In its effort to apply “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang to denuclearize, President Trump is clearly attempting to re-enlist the support of Beijing to use its leverage over North Korea to stop its provocations. Interestingly, others experts have noted that while Beijing’s leverage over Pyongyang is significant relative to the United States’ and Japan’s because the two have little to none, Beijing’s actual leverage over Pyongyang is, however, perhaps very little. The fact that North Korea has launched 16 missiles in 10 tests so far in 2017 may be evidence of that lack of leverage.
Therefore, any anticipation of what a tradeoff may bring in terms of actual results must be measured by a dose of realistic expectation of what China can and is willing to do. While there is no evidence to indicate that the administration is considering such a move, I would simply note as caution for the administration to avoid entertaining this seductive idea that has no legs.
Defense Secretary James Mattis’ statement at the Shangri-La Dialogue reaffirming US defense commitments to Taiwan based on the TRA was a step in the right direction. More can and should be done.
Third, rather than reciprocate Taipei’s overtures, Beijing is ratcheting up pressure against Taiwan. Rather than talk to Tsai, Xi has focused on courting a weakened opposition, applying economic pressure on Taiwan to foment domestic discontent, and squeezing Taiwan’s international space in a full-court press to coerce Taipei into submitting to the PRC. The effect has been counterproductive to Beijing’s stated aim to resolve the issue peacefully. While its objective remains the same, there have been some interesting developments related to Beijing’s approach to Taiwan that include appointment of non-Taiwan experts to senior positions in the broader Taiwan policy apparatuses, diversionary tactics in the East China and South China Seas, and the use of coercive economic tools.
While many things are happening, very little has changed in terms of actual US policy towards Taiwan. However, the PLA’s unprecedented and massive military buildup, growing economic leverage, diplomatic coercion, alongside regional uncertainty over US staying power in the region, is leaving Taiwan more susceptible to PRC coercion than perhaps ever before, and thus presents a risk to peace and stability in the Western Pacific.
Set against the region’s geostrategic uncertainty and increasing pressure on the alliances, the United States needs an integrated approach that leverages diplomatic, military, and economic tools to strengthen relations with Taiwan and maintain its capacity to help Taiwan resist PRC coercion. This integrated approach requires a mix of hard and soft power to strengthen alliances and partnerships, reduce uncertainty, and minimize miscalculation by all sides.
It is necessary to restore a consistent, high-level, and reliable process for how the United States engages with Taiwan on arms sales that will have the effect of reassuring our friends in Taiwan of US commitment, not only to Taiwan, but to regional allies and partners. A clearly stated objective of soft balancing to shore up the sovereignty gap in the Taiwan Strait would ensure lasting peace in the Taiwan Strait. Lastly, strategic accommodation of China, especially over Taiwan, would be a strategic mistake. Outsized expectations of China’s leverage with regard to reining in North Korea could disproportionately lead to a miscalculation of tradeoffs that would seriously damage US credibility with few gains.
The confluence of these factors brings me to my overall recommendation on the urgency of a gradual recalibration of US policy towards Taiwan.
First, especially in the aftermath of the break in diplomatic ties between Taiwan and Panama, I wish to commend Ranking Member Sherman and other distinguished members of this committee for passing the Taiwan Travel Act. The current approach of conditioning the execution of US law and policy on Beijing’s reaction in effect leads to creeping deference to Beijing’s “One-China” principle, and the PRC should not be allowed to dictate how the United States conducts its informal relations with Taiwan.
Second, the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF), launched in 2015, is a critical mechanism for enhancing Taiwan’s international space. It should be expanded and adequately resourced. Functional cooperation with Taiwan is apolitical and Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international community and the benefits it bestows upon the rest of the world must not be allowed to be curtailed by the PRC’s calculated politicization of Taiwan’s international space.
Third, the PRC’s massive military buildup across the Strait and its continued refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan is a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area. While the United States has managed to deter Beijing from taking destructive military action against Taiwan over the last four decades because the latter has been relatively weak, the risks of this approach inch dangerously close to outweighing its benefits. Greater clarity on the U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan is critical for purposes of deterrence and stability. As the PLA grows stronger, a perceived lack of commitment by the United States to defending Taiwan may further embolden Beijing to use force to resolve the Taiwan issue.
Fourth, in the face of Secretary of State Tillerson’s comments downplaying the role of American values in foreign policy decisionmaking, Congress could reassert the importance of shared values in American foreign policy since “the foundation of US-Taiwan relations is our shared values—our commitment to democracy, civil liberties, and human rights.”
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, President Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances are necessary but no longer sufficient. Renewed assurances for Taiwan are needed in this period of growing uncertainty. Much has changed since the Six Assurances and other non-papers were issued back in 1982. In conjunction with the original assurances, renewed assurances could, as former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Randy Schriver wrote—among other things—make clear that preserving Taiwan’s democracy is in the interest of the United States; honor the TRA; not pressure Taiwan into negotiations with the PRC; not support an outcome that does not enjoy the support of the majority of the free people of Taiwan; and not “co-manage” the Taiwan issue with the PRC.
Ranking Member and Mr. Chairman, thank you again for this opportunity to testify before this subcommittee.