As 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which “provides the legal basis for the unofficial relationship between the US and Taiwan,” let’s take a look back at what happened in 2018 in the United States and Taiwan and assess what may lay ahead for US-Taiwan relations in 2019.
What Happened in the United States in 2018?
In the United States, 2018 saw a strengthening of US-Taiwan relations through the passing of the Taiwan Travel Act, the inauguration of a new building for the American Institute in Taiwan, the authorization of new arm sales, vocal support for Taiwan to be included in international organizations such as the World Health Assembly, a letter by six US Senators addressed to US government agencies asking to “help Taiwan investigate China’s alleged meddling in its elections and to take action to prevent Beijing from interfering in future elections in democracies around the globe.” Moreover, the US recalled its top diplomats from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama due to these Central American countries’ decision to switch recognition from the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Finally, President Trump also signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) of 2018, which “includes a section reaffirming the US commitment to Taiwan.” While these are all good signs that show continued support of the US-Taiwan relationship, we need to look deeper into what the November election in the United States, and also the one in Taiwan, could mean for US-Taiwan relations in 2019.
The US November midterm election saw Democrats taking back control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans maintained the majority in the Senate. A divided Congress, which would inevitably lead to more gridlock in Washington, may mean that the window of opportunity for increased US support for Taiwan could be closing. Moreover, many experts argue that the resignation of General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, could possibly create further complications in the US-Taiwan relationship. General Mattis is credited for “dispatching warships to the Taiwan Strait three times in 2018. He also pushed back hard against Beijing in the South China Sea, sending warships close to disputed islands that China claims. […] With Trump, everything is negotiable. […] Mattis’ resignation reignited concern in Taipei about whether the United States could be dependent on as an ally.” It is also worth mentioning that President Trump’s sudden decision to pull all US troops from Syria, and half of the ones in Afghanistan, has made many in Taiwan worry about this US administration defense commitments with Taiwan in case of a possible Chinese military attack.
What Happened in Taiwan in 2018?
In Taiwan, the most significant event to occur in 2018 was the local election. On November 24, Taiwan’s nine-in-one local election saw the landslide defeat of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and subsequent resignation of President Tsai from the leadership of the party. There are a number of reasons that lead to this defeat, and contrary to many people’s view, they are mostly domestic.
While the current Tsai administration is being praised by the international community, including the United States, for being a moderate and responsible actor, domestically this moderation has not been welcomed by elements within her own party. Some supporters of the DPP are in fact dissatisfied with President Tsai’s moderation, which they believe does not inspire “passion” among Taiwanese voters, and also promotes confusion about the administration’s “values” and agenda. Some other Taiwanese voters claim that President Tsai has failed to capitalize on the fact that now Taiwan has the support of a more Taiwan-friendly US administration by not taking a more confrontational stance against China.
Another reason that could explain DPP’s poor performance in the November 2018 election is the lackluster execution of a number of major reforms promoted by the Tsai’s administration that were necessary, yet contentious. With how the pension and labor-law reforms were passed, in which none of the dominant stakeholders were satisfied, the administration and the DPP in general lost the support of many previous DPP sympathizers, including the many public servants and military veterans whose pension was diminished by the new law. The opposing party, the Kuomintang or KMT, also capitalized on the socially controversial same-sex marriage reform by joining many Christian church leaders, who were usually sympathetic to the DPP, to push people to vote for the KMT.
The ten referenda included in the election, and advocated by the KMT, were another Achilles’ heel for Tsai and her party. Apart for being worded in a confusing way, and the lack of guidance by the DPP on how to vote, the outcome of the referenda were detrimental to Tsai’s administration as the result rejected Tsai’s non-nuclear energy by 2025, marriage equality, and also created a rift in relations with Taiwan’s ally, Japan, over the issue of importing certain Japanese agricultural and food imports from areas affected by the Fukushima disaster.
Another major factor that played in the November election was the economy. While the vulnerabilities of Taiwan’s economy, heavily dependent on exports to China predates the ongoing trade disputes between the United States and China, there is a lack of understanding among Taiwanese voters of the political implications of their economically driven vote. This includes a lack of awareness among Taiwanese that believe that closer ties with China would help Taiwan’s economy (yes, Taiwan’s economy is in large part dependent on China, but part of Tsai’s agenda is to diversify it to mitigate the risks associated with this dependency) and bring more Chinese tourists into Taiwan. What they may not realize is that the Chinese economy is also slowing down.
Finally, a major concern during Taiwan’s November election, disinformation was also highlighted by six US Senators that sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking them to “work closely with Taiwan authorities to thoroughly investigate these allegations [of CCP foreign interference in Taiwan’s election] and, take swift action to deter future CCP interferences in elections in Taiwan or elsewhere across the globe.” However, it is important to keep in mind that the spread of disinformation was not only coming from China, but also from within Taiwan.
Looking Ahead in 2019
The beginning of 2019 showed that US support for Taiwan has not diminished or changed. As the year began with Chinese President Xi Jinping reiteration of its policy goal of a China that included Taiwan, saying at the 40th anniversary speech commemorating the 1979 “Message to the Taiwan Compatriots” that “Taiwan unification must be the ultimate goal of any talks over its future and that efforts to assert full independence could be met by armed force,” the US has already sailed two ships through the Taiwan Strait in “accordance to international law […] to demonstrate the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Additionally, a DIA report titled “China’s Military Power” pointed out that China’s military modernization is also driven to eventually achieve unification with Taiwan as well as decrease US influence in the region, which was again supported on January 29 by top US security officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and DNI Dan Coats, during their testimony of the annual global threats assessment to the Senate intelligence committee. Moreover, in January the US House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that “directs the US secretary of state to help Taiwan ‘regain’ its observer statues at the World Health Organization (WHO).” Finally, just last week six US Senators wrote a letter to US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi “urging her to invite Tsai Ing-Wen, the President of Taiwan, to address a joint session of Congress.”
2019 is going to be an important year for relations between Washington and Taipei. While both the United States and Taiwan are preparing for presidential elections, US-Taiwan relations remain as strong as they were on 2018 and could become stronger throughout the rest of this year. However, domestic developments in both the United States and Taiwan could have the potential to cause rifts in the bilateral relationship. Through actions that demonstrate substantive cooperation between Washington and Taipei—perhaps by signing a Free Trade Agreement or a Bilateral Investment Agreement, or carving out a greater role for Taiwan in the US’ Open and Free Indo-Pacific Strategy—the two sides can offset more destabilizing developments in the bilateral as well as triangular relationship between Washington, Taipei, and Beijing.
The main point: As 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, and both the United States and Taiwan are gearing up for presidential elections in 2020, the relation between Washington and Taipei continues to be strong, even though the results of the elections in November 2018 both in Taiwan and the United States could signify the possible closing of the window of opportunity for closer US-Taiwan relations.