There is no question that Chinese strongman Xi Jinping has increased his country’s focus on pressing Taiwan into further concessions, aimed at foreshortening the time before the island might feel compelled to cut some sort of deal with the mainland that diminishes its status. The goal, of course, is reunification on Beijing’s terms. I do find one small and ironic glimmer of hope. Since Xi has apparently now appointed himself leader for life, and no doubt hopes to live another 25-30 years, maybe his timetable for Taiwan’s reunification (read surrender) isn’t that short!
But in all seriousness, the people of Taiwan have every right to feel new pressure from the mainland to compromise on the essential elements of their de facto independence. That is where the longstanding commitment on the part of the United States to prevent any coercion or attack on the island becomes so important.
Washington regularly reiterates its commitment to the Three Communiqués, the Six Assurances and the criticality of any resolution to the Taiwan question being peaceful. More practically, Washington continues to approve arms sales to Taiwan, aimed at ensuring it has the necessary capability to respond to any threat or use of force by the mainland. Our Congress has become even more outspoken in its determination to ensure Taiwan’s self-defense is adequate to the expanding threat.
Of course, Taiwan has to budget and pay for the weapons purchases that stem from this commitment, something that President Tsai has been working toward, despite ever-present budgetary constraints. It would be helpful if Taiwan moved more expeditiously to increase the overall percentage of its budget allocated to vital defense needs, especially given the dramatic expansion of the mainland’s defense spending.
Over time, I hope our Congress and Administration will take a more creative approach to the question of supporting Taiwan’s development of submarine capabilities as well as the need for a post-F-16 fighter plane solution to its air defense needs. But, for the time being, this process must grapple with President Trump’s apparent bromance with the thuggish Mr. Xi, as well as the American leader’s more general lack of focus on foreign affairs.
I welcome the robust US military response to Chinese belligerency in the Far East. Our ships and planes continue to challenge the egregious annexation of the South China Sea islands, followed by the steady building up of those islets by the PLA. Not only Beijing’s behavior flies in the face of the 2016 decision by the International Court of Justice to dismiss China’s territorial claims, in a case brought by the Philippine Government. It also ignores international practice in assigning territorial rights based on the Law of the Sea, coastal waters and other traditional standards. China’s actions under Mr. Xi smack of the same sort of disregard for international standards that accompanied Adolf Hitler’s steady encroachment on his neighbors’ territory back in the 1930’s. We all remember where that ended up.
Sailing US naval vessels through the Taiwan Strait is another way of telegraphing to China’s authoritarian leadership that the United States remains committed to Taiwan’s security, in words as well as in actions. This stands for attempts by China to intimidate our ally partner in Japan over the Diaoyutai islands, and more generally our commitment to the status quo and peaceful resolution of disputes throughout East Asia generally. I would also support a decision to send one of our aircraft carriers through the Strait again, as a symbolic demonstration of America’s enduring commitment to Taiwan’s defense.
Washington’s warming relations with Vietnam, over 40 years after we withdrew our last troops from Saigon, marks another important trend in US policy toward the region. Let us put aside the egregious miscalculation back then – that viewed North Vietnam’s aggression toward the South as a manifestation of “Red Chinese” expansion – as the impetus for our involvement in what was essentially an internal civil war. The underlying fallacy was of a uniform communist bloc intent on expanding its territorial holdings through military aggression. The breakup of the Sino-Soviet alliance and its replacement by nationalist themes and border disputes, put the lie to an old Cold War shibboleth.
But back to Taiwan. We should continue to emphasize our enduring ties to the island, built upon decades of economic and political cooperation. A supporting trend has been the large-scale immigration of Taiwan citizens to the US generating a growing domestic element to our friendly relations. Millions of Americans with roots to Taiwan have become an important new voice with respect to American cross-Strait issues.
We should renew efforts to nail down a Free Trade Agreement with Taiwan at an early date. For its part, Taipei should push back on its pesky agricultural lobby and find an early solution to disputes over pork and beef restrictions. It has become more difficult in the Trump era to champion regional economic and trade organizations. But, Taiwan should be accorded continuing full access to and participation in these groupings, including APEC, TPP, WTO, ASEAN, and other vital Asian gatherings. It has earned its inclusion by its sterling economic performance and its willingness to be a team player on regional issues of common interest.
Congressional legislation has encouraged more senior level visits by US officials to Taiwan. There is a track record of having cabinet-level US officials visit the island to discuss economic and trade issues. I see no reason why this could not be expanded to include law enforcement issues and any other senior representatives whose portfolio aligns with the broad brand of overlapping US-Taiwan interests.
In sum, there remain plenty of areas where my country can enhance its cooperation with our longtime friends in Taiwan. Just as Mr. Xi’s Beijing seems willing to push the envelope—at the risk of heightened tensions—so the United States can and should make it clear that our own commitment to Taiwan’s survival and self-defense is as solid as ever. I believe such actions would not only hearten spirits in Taiwan, but also reinvigorate confidence in America’s commitment to a free and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.
The main point: The United States can and should make it clear that our own commitment to Taiwan’s survival and self-defense is as solid as ever. I believe such actions would not only hearten spirits in Taiwan, but also reinvigorate confidence in America’s commitment to a free and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.