Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
When Washington switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, Taiwan policy in the United States was framed as a subset of a larger China policy. Under this policy approach, Taiwan and its importance to the United States was understood purely in the context of its relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This approach linked Taiwan to cross-Strait relations and severely limited how policymakers and also the public understood the country and its untapped potential. As a result, over time the practice of Taiwan policy became incrementally defined by limitations imposed by the perceived importance of the PRC for US policy.
Yet, since the 1980s, Taiwan’s political system experienced a remarkable transformation and it is now an enviable member within the community of democracies. Taiwan is also a dynamic capitalist economy that boasts the 23rd highest GDP in terms of purchasing power parity in the world, and also makes about a quarter of the world’s semiconductors and about a fifth of the world’s mobile phones. Despite being prevented by Beijing from becoming a member of many international organizations, Taipei remains committed to the goals of Universal Health Coverage and contributes to other global efforts to provide public goods such as fighting infectious diseases, among others.
While cross-Strait relations is an important consideration for US policy towards Taiwan because of the delicate triangular relationship between Washington, Taipei, and Beijing, the tendency to overemphasize this factor in the US relationship with Taiwan has made progress in the bilateral relationship overly susceptible to Beijing’s temperamental reactions. To be sure, it has crowded out discussion about how Taiwan’s many other unleveraged assets can make a meaningful contribution to the international community. Further, it limited the potential role that Taiwan—a like-minded democracy as well as important economic and security partner of the United States—can play in other broader policy initiatives, which has no bearing on the unofficial nature of US-Taiwan relations based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
That old approach is slowly giving way to the recognition that Taiwan’s expertise, capacity, and resources can make a meaningful contribution to all kinds of global challenges. This is reflected with the initiation of the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) between the United States and Taiwan in 2015. Under GCTF, the United State and Taiwan began working more closely together to expand cooperation to address global challenges in areas such as education, environmental protection, energy, international humanitarian assistance, public health, technology, and regional development. Now that role is being explored more broadly under the “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy. As stated by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Alex Wong:
The second certainty is that the United States, Taiwan, and all our partners can work together to strengthen the free and open order of the Indo-Pacific. … Taiwan has an important role to play. … In particular, the United States welcomes Taiwan’s efforts to strengthen its ties with the countries across the region through its New Southbound Policy. While Taiwan has been viewed as a gateway into the China market, Taiwan is also emerging as a leading economy of Southeast Asian and South Asian markets. More Taiwan companies are doing business with these markets. Taiwan is increasingly open to tourists from across Asia. And academic exchanges are giving foreign students a taste of Taiwan’s top-notch educational system. Taiwan is set to grow closer to these countries in a way that will lay the foundation for even more Taiwan contributions to global prosperity and cooperation.
The TRA stated that it is the policy of the United States to “preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” Indeed, the principle of that US commitment should be commensurate with the Taiwanese people’s remarkable achievement with their democracy, their willingness to make a meaningful contribution to global challenges, and their reasonable desire for more international space.
In this special issue, the Global Taiwan Brief is pleased to present four articles from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Taiwan-US Policy Program (TUPP)—which aims to educate and inform future American policy leaders (age 28-43) about Taiwan and US-Taiwan relations—that represent the global perspectives that can help shape new ways of thinking about Taiwan and also its relationship with the world.
(GTI is a sponsor of the CSIS-TUPP program. The other articles from the program are available here.)