As Beijing Squeezes Taiwan’s International Space, President Tsai Transits Become More Like Visits
By all accounts, President Tsai Ing-wen’s transits through the United States before and after her state visits to Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in South America from August 12 to August 20 were successful. During her two stopovers in the United States, first in Los Angeles en route to the region then Houston on her way back, President Tsai met with senior US lawmakers, heads of state governments, and business leaders. President Tsai also engaged with expatriate communities of Taiwanese-Americans, spoke publicly at a presidential library, and toured a space station—a federal agency to boot. Over Beijing’s repeated objections, Washington not only approved these stopovers but has gradually elevated the form of these transits made by Taiwan’s leaders. As Beijing squeezes Taiwan’s international space ever more tightly, the US government appears to be incrementally normalizing these transits to become more visit-like.
President Tsai has made eight transits through the United States since becoming the president of Taiwan in May 2016:
June-July 2016 (Miami, Los Angeles): A month after her inauguration and after Beijing decided to freeze high-level dialogue with Taipei, President Tsai made a quick 24-hour transit stop in Miami en route to diplomatic allies Panama and Paraguay (Panama since switched diplomatic recognition to the PRC in June 2017). Despite Beijing’s warnings, Tsai met with senior US lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio, Representatives Gregg Harper and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, among others. On Tsai’s return to Taiwan, she stopped over in Los Angeles where she met with then-AIT Chairman Ray Burghardt and took part to a banquet attended by several US Representatives. She also had phone conversations with former US President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan.
January 2017 (Houston, San Francisco): One month after President-elect Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai and São Tomé and Príncipe switched diplomatic ties, Tsai transited through the United States again on her way to Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. During her low-key transit in Houston, Tsai toured the Museum of Fine Arts and visited a couple of facilities owned by Taiwanese businesses. Despite a very strongly worded letter sent by the PRC Consul-General in Houston warning US lawmakers not to meet with Tsai, the Governor of Texas and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, met Tsai. And in San Francisco, she toured the facility of Twitter and had a lunch with the Taiwanese community living there.
October-November 2017 (Hawaii, Guam): Several months after Panama—one of Taiwan’s oldest diplomatic ally—broke ties with Taiwan, the Trump Administration permitted President Tsai’s transits in Hawaii and Guam en route to visit three Pacific island allies: Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands. During her visit to Hawaii, President Tsai visited Pearl Harbor Memorial. On her way back, she stopped in Guam. While the office of Guam Governor Edward B. Calvo described it as a “private and unofficial visit,” Tsai was provided a police escort upon her arrival and members of Guam’s legislature were in attendance at a reception hosted by the governor for Tsai.
August 2018 (Los Angeles, Houston): Her most recent transits through Los Angeles and Houston en route to South America took place after the diplomatic loss of the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso to Beijing in May. In Los Angeles, Tsai paid tribute to the late President Ronald Reagan with a visit to his presidential library. More notable than the tour itself, President Tsai made rare public remarks. She also met with Senator Cory Gardner and Representative Brad Sherman, among others, had a phone conversation with Senator Rubio, and met with New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. On her way back, she stopped again in Houston where she met with two members of House of Representatives, had substantive discussions about energy and space cooperation, toured the Texas Medical Center, met with the Louisiana Governor, and toured NASA Space station. Perhaps most notably, Tsai is the first president of Taiwan to be permitted to visit a federal facility.
Noting the evolution of these transits after the visit-like transits through Honolulu and Guam, former Asia specialist at the Congressional Research Service and GTI adviser Shirley Kan wrote:
Since 1994, the US response to requests from the nation’s presidents to come to the US has evolved from initially denying former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) entry, to allowing restricted transits for former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), to relaxing restrictions in favor of visit-like “transits” for the safety, comfort, convenience and dignity of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Tsai … Her [Tsai] experience in Hawaii also contributes to the evolution in US policy and leadership to allow visit-like “transits,” with potential implications for the development of policy approaches in Washington and other national capitals.
The loosening of overly-restrictive and self-imposed protocols guiding these transits are necessary and a welcome trend in how Washington conducts its unofficial relations with Taipei. This does not, however, indicate a change in US policy. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert stated:
our policy on Taiwan has not changed. The United States remains committed to our US “one China” policy based on three joint communiques under the Taiwan Relations Act. The United States, in regard to this trip, facilitates from time to time representatives of the Taiwan authorities to transit the United States. Those are largely undertaken out of consideration for the safety and comfort of those travelers and that is in keeping with our “one China” policy.
In yet another step that further fundamentally undermines the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait, El Salvador severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan on August 21 in order to establish ties with Beijing. With these actions, Beijing is pushing Taiwan further away from “China.” It is against this backdrop that the visit-like transits through Los Angeles and Houston are ever more important demonstrations of growing trust between Washington and Taipei.
The main point: As China’s pressure-campaign intensifies, President Tsai’s transits through the United States are becoming more visit-like, which represents a clear demonstration of growing trust between Washington and Taipei.
DoD 2018 China Military Power Report on Taiwan
On August 17, the US Department of Defense (DoD) released the 2018 China Military Power Report (CMPR). The CMPR is a legislatively-mandated study, with both classified and unclassified versions, prepared by DoD, and authorized pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000. Since 2002, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) has issued an unclassified annual report assessing military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC). A chapter in each report is devoted to the security situation in the Taiwan Strait and the threats posed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the 2018 report is no exception. In fact, the length of the chapter on Taiwan and the number of references to “Taiwan” throughout the 2018 report are second only to the 2003 report at 12 pages and 177 references (7 and 178 respectively in 2003).
For readers’ ease of reference, the paragraphs below provide the major takeaways from each subsection of the Taiwan chapter as provided in the report:
China’s Strategy in the Taiwan Strait
- While China advocates for peaceful reunification with Taiwan, China has never repudiated the use of military force, and continues to develop and deploy increasingly advanced capabilities needed for a potential military campaign.
- Circumstances that would prompt the use of force remain ambiguous, preserving China’s flexibility.
China’s Courses of Action Against Taiwan
- Multiple military options exist for a Taiwan campaign, ranging from an air and maritime blockade to a full-scale amphibious invasion to seize and occupy some, or all of Taiwan, or its offshore islands.
- China could engage in a deliberate force buildup to signal an imminent military campaign or conduct a surprise campaign to force rapid military and political resolutions before other countries could respond.
- Should the United States intervene, China would try to delay effective intervention and seek victory in a high-intensity, limited war, of short duration.
Effect of PLA Reform on a Taiwan Contingency
- The PLA aims to increase its ability to conduct complex joint operations.
- Although ongoing reforms may decrease near-term readiness, in the long-term they should enable better planning and preparation for joint military operations across the Taiwan Strait.
The PLA’s Current Posture for a Taiwan Conflict
- PLA services and support forces continue to improve training and acquire new capabilities for a Taiwan contingency.
- Although the PLAN (PLA Navy) seeks to achieve maritime superiority within the first island chain and to deter a third party from intervening in a Taiwan campaign, there is no indication it is significantly expanding its landing ship force necessary for an amphibious assault on Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Defensive Capabilities
- Taiwan’s advantages continue to decline as China’s modernization efforts continue.
- Taiwan’s transition to an all-volunteer force by 2019 will be costlier than anticipated, straining the limited defense budget and diverting funds from defense acquisition, training, and readiness.
- To counter China’s improving capabilities, Taiwan is developing new concepts and capabilities for asymmetric warfare
China’s Amphibious Capabilities
- The PLAA (PLA Army) and PLANMC (PLA Navy and Marine Corps) continue to equip, plan, and train for sustained amphibious operations.
- The PLAN did not make significant additions to its amphibious fleet in 2017, but launched a YUZHAO LPD that could enter service in 2018.
This is the second CMPR that the DoD published since Tsai became president and there appears to be more continuity than change in the DoD’s assessment of PLA force modernization for a Taiwan contingency. Yet, there are some notable trends: First, the CMPR continues to underscore that “Taiwan’s [defense] advantages continue to decline as China’s modernization efforts continue.” Second, the CMPR suggests that the real military threat posed by China to Taiwan is longer-term rather than near-term since (a) ongoing PLA reforms may reduce near-term readiness, and (b) “there is also no indication that China is expanding its landing ship force at this time—suggesting that a direct beach assault operation requiring extensive lift is less likely in planning.” Third, the explicit reference to the Taiwan government’s assessment that PLA military activity near Taiwan pose an “enormous threat to security in the Taiwan Strait” seems to reflect greater alignment of threat perceptions between Taiwan’s and the United States’ defense establishments.
The main point: The Taiwan chapter in the 2018 CMPR represents more continuity than change in the DoD’s assessment of PLA force modernization for a Taiwan contingency.