President Donald Trump is trying new ways to engage the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that show promise, but it is in the US national security interest that he stays the tried and true course carefully laid out by prior US presidents when dealing with Taiwan. In particular, President Trump has revised the manner of engaging the senior leadership in Beijing by dismantling the highly bureaucratized Strategic & Economic Dialogue of the Obama era and replacing it with the US-China Comprehensive Dialogue.
This new dialogue has four senior dialogue mechanisms: the Diplomatic and Strategic Dialogue lead by Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis, the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue lead by Secretary Manuchin and Secretary Ross, the Law Enforcement and Cyber Strategy Dialogue lead by Attorney General Sessions and Secretary Kelly, and the Social and People-to-People Dialogue. These dialogues seem to be off to a good start although the US participants seem overmatched to their Chinese counterparts, who lack the political and bureaucratic clout of their US counterparts. This is accounted for by the peculiarities of the Chinese government in which real power rests with senior Politburo members whose positions do not align well with the US Cabinet.
There was a great deal of discussion before the first meeting between President Trump and President Xi at Mar-a-Lago in early April as to whether Taiwan should or would be a prominent issue discussed. I went on record advocating that President Trump keep low key any discussion of Taiwan because of the danger of China attempting to link the issue with US priorities on North Korea, trade, and China’s actions in the South China Sea. Moreover, some had even advocated the dangerous notion that President Trump and President Xi agree to work on a fourth US-China Communiqué on Taiwan.
It was reassuring to see that, in both the Mar-a-Lago summit and the first Diplomatic and Strategic Dialogue on June 20th, discussion of Taiwan was not prominent. In fact, a curious document issued a few days ago by the PRC’s Foreign Ministry (but not the US government) titled, “The Relevant Consensus of the First Round of China-US Diplomatic and Security Dialogue,” does not even mention Taiwan. Despite the fact that this does not in any way appear to be an actual “consensus” document, I view its content as a positive sign that Beijing did not get any concessions on the Taiwan issue at either of these dialogues. It is also noteworthy that the official Chinese readout of State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s (楊潔篪) subsequent meeting with President Trump last Thursday also made no mention of the Taiwan issue.
The PRC appears to initially be treading carefully on the Taiwan issue with President Trump, probably because it calculates that, given the President’s surprise of a pre-inauguration phone conversation with President Tsai, it must first prove a useful partner to Washington before pressing the issue. But, of course, Beijing will inevitably return to this issue in time. Thus, it provides the Trump Administration the opportunity to craft and set its Taiwan policy in the interim while it has the luxury of a deliberative process.
Key to living up to our legal and moral commitments to Taiwan is continuity in US support for Taiwan’s defense capabilities. The PRC’s assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas demonstrates that it is intent on flexing its new military might to back up its sovereignty claims; and China’s ever-increasing defense spending highlights its growing military prowess. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the Trump Administration on 29 June announced that it had approved the sale to Taiwan of $1.4 billion worth of missiles, torpedoes, and technical upgrades for early warning radars. This is the first new arms sales announcement since President Tsai assumed office and should dispel concerns that the Trump Administration might use Taiwan as a bargaining chip with China.
Taiwan cannot hope to match China’s defense budget but a robust, asymmetrical defense policy based on the synergy of cyber, space, and missile systems can give Taiwan the ability to withstand any initial assault. One of the most important knowledge transfers the United States military can bestow on Taiwan is the ability to execute a defense strategy based on the sophisticated doctrine of “jointness.” Outlined in Department of Defense document JP-1, jointness is the core of US operational guidance, and was developed over many years of actual combat experience on the modern battlefield. For a relatively small military force, such as Taiwan’s, the execution of a jointness doctrine can have a large, force-multiplier effect.
Another area that Taiwan must devote attention to is a whole-of-society defense. As Russia has demonstrated in eastern Ukraine with its strategy of subversion by “little green men,” Taiwan may not, in the future, face an all-out assault from China, but rather subversion from within. Countries bordering Russia (such as Poland, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania) are studying the Ukrainian experience and developing whole-of-society defense concepts. Taiwan needs to study these concepts, with the assistance of US special operations experts, because China certainly is studying the new Russian model of warfare.
This is not to downplay the advantages of the continuing transfer of US military hardware and technology to Taiwan. Taiwan must have modern weapons to deter a PRC military assault. Moreover, US arms sales are a highly visible demonstration to Beijing that the US commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue remains unwavering. During my years in the White House with President George W. Bush, I became convinced that the US defense commitment to Taiwan was a key source of stability in cross-Strait relations, because it reassured the people of Taiwan that they would not be bullied. Thus, there are many reasons why the Trump Administration would find it in the best interest of the United States, Taiwan, and cross-Strait stability to build its Taiwan policy on the premise of the status-quo, paired with continued attempts to improve cross-Strait ties.
The main point: President Trump has revised the US strategy for dealing with Beijing, but this does not mean that he will use Taiwan as a bargaining chip. There are no indications that, during the first round of the new Diplomatic and Strategic Dialogue in late June, Secretary Tilleson or Secretary Mattis gave any ground on the Taiwan issue and, in fact, new arms sales approvals came only days after the high-level meeting with Beijing. Sustained arms sales to Taiwan are a necessary but not sufficient component of US support for Taiwan’s defenses, as the changing nature of Chinese offensive capabilities suggest that training in joint operations and whole-of-society defense are equally advantageous.