During an interview with Reuters on April 28, 2017, President Donald Trump suggested that he would consult with China’s Xi Jinping before taking another phone call from Taiwan’s president. Waving off, at least for the time being, the idea of taking a second phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen, Trump said: “Look, my problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi. I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation,” referring to signs that China may be working to head off any new missile or nuclear test by Pyongyang. “So I wouldn’t want to be causing difficulty right now for him,” Trump added. “I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first.”
The Reuters interview followed the Trump-Xi Florida summit in Mar-a-Lago earlier in April, where the pair reportedly reached an understanding on greater cooperation with regard to the North Korea nuclear issue and a new give-and-take on trade policy. There has been no official report from Mar-a-Lago of any wide ranging discussion on cross-Strait issues. Given Beijing’s long history of invariably bringing up Taiwan as a “core interest” in any high-level discussions with Washington, however, it is hard to imagine that Taiwan was not raised in some form.
Any reassurances sought or given on cross-Strait security-related matters would enter an area of discussion largely considered taboo by previous US administrations. Any adjustments made on Beijing’s North Korea policy in exchange for Washington’s adjustments made on Taiwan, a sort of quid-pro-quo, could come perilously close to violating the Congressional intent codified in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) as well as crossing a line with regard to the Six Assurances. President Trump has, however, indicated that he is not wedded to past diplomatic practices in seeking to achieve results. As he noted in the Art of the Deal, “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first.”
The TRA, of course, stipulates with regard to arms sales that, “the President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan, in accordance with procedures established by law.” The Six Assurances include President Reagan’s pledge that “the United States would not consult with China in advance before making decisions about US arms sales to Taiwan” and that ‘the United States would not mediate between Taiwan and China.”
Reuters had originally carried an earlier report indicating that the new Trump Administration was considering a robust defensive arms sales package for Taiwan, including “advanced rocket systems and anti-ship missiles to defend against China, US officials said, a deal sure to anger Beijing.” In speaking of the potential sale of F-35 aircraft to Taiwan, however, President Trump said “Oh, I haven’t been informed. I’d have to think about that. I’d have to speak to my people about that. They (Taiwan’s government) do buy a lot of equipment from us.” However, Beijing made it perfectly clear on March 20 that “China firmly opposes US arms sales to Taiwan, this is consistent and clear-cut,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) told a regular press briefing. “We hope the US side fully recognizes the high sensitivity and serious harmfulness of its sales to Taiwan.” Thus moving forward with a Taiwan arms sales package could prove a deal breaker for the new Trump-Xi rapprochement.
The Republican majority in the US Congress had long been critical of the previous Obama Administration for not more vigorously pursuing Taiwan arms sales. Obama’s hesitancy was allegedly due to concern over an adverse impact on Beijing’s cooperation with such then priority issues as climate change. Republican Congressional critics called for a more formalized structure for Taiwan arms sales in December 2015: “Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a ‘more regularized process’ for considering requests for arms sales to Taipei ‘to avoid extended periods in which a fear of upsetting the US-China relationship may harm Taiwan’s defense capabilities.’” On the House side, Representative Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee stated that “We should handle arms transfers to Taiwan just as we would for any other close security partner.”
Even the new Trump administration joined the chorus of Republican critics of the previous administration’s Taiwan arms sales policy: “The Obama administration blocked a $1 billion arms sale to Taiwan in December that was needed to improve the island’s defenses despite approval from the State Department and Pentagon, according to Trump administration officials.” In the meantime, a Republican Congress sought in 2016 to reaffirm both the TRA and the Six Assurances through resolutions sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio in the Senate and Representative Steve Chabot in the House.
When President Ronald Reagan entered uncharted waters over the problematic issue in Sino-American relations of Taiwan arms sales, he sought immediately to clarify American policy. Reagan delivered the Six Assurances to Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo, via his representative in Taipei, James Lilley, even before the issuance of the Third Communiqué, on August 17, 1982. This communiqué, extensively negotiated by Kissinger protégé and then-Secretary of State Al Haig, included the United States declaring its intent “gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan.” This prevaricating language led to what Ambassador Lilley once referred to this author as “a needed course correction” by the deliverance of the Six Assurances on July 14 in Taipei. These included the statement that “The United States “had not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China.” By then, Al Haig was gone from the State Department and the US policy of continued arms sales to provide for Taiwan’s defensive needs had been enshrined by a Republican President. Given the widening security gap in the Taiwan Strait, these assurances have become even more critical today than they were in the summer of 1982.
The key questions for the current Republican administration is whether it will abide by those assurances given 35 years ago to Taipei by the great Cold War President Ronald Reagan, despite whatever deal could be possibly crafted with Beijing with regard to North Korea? Will Taipei get the F-35 aircraft and technological assistance in the construction of diesel-electric submarines it so desperately needs to narrow the emerging strategic gap in the Taiwan Strait? Will Donald Trump and the Congressional Republicans “win just one for the Gipper?” Only time will tell.
The main point: Provision of defensive arms for Taiwan’s security is a matter to be strictly determined by a needs assessment of the cross-Strait security situation, as determined by both the Administration and the U.S. Congress, according to the TRA. Any prior consultation with Beijing on Taiwan arms sales is strictly forbidden, according to the Six Assurances. President Ronald Reagan would have expected such as he sent a “non-paper” to Taiwan President Chiang on July 26, 1982 stating that “the U.S. does not agree to the PRC’s demand to have prior consultations with them on arms sales to Taiwan.”