Watching the footage of an armored vehicle driving into a crowd of protesters in Venezuela, as an Asia specialist I could not help but to be reminded of tanks rolling down the streets of Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Having for years supported and propped up the Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro governments, China bears at least some responsibility for the blood spilled on the streets of Caracas. If Venezuelans are ultimately successful in ousting Maduro and his cronies from power, the new Juan Guaidó-led government is unlikely to see China as a friend to be embraced, but rather as a creditor best kept at arms length.
Ironically, perhaps, Guaidó and the Venezuelan people may look far more kindly upon a government that Beijing has vigorously sought to isolate on the international stage: that of Taiwan. At the Organization of American States’ Global Conference on the Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela in February, Taiwan’s Representative to the United States Stanley Kao announced that Taiwan would provide $500,000 in humanitarian aid to Venezuela. Taiwan has also donated trucks for aid delivery. Despite having no diplomatic relations with Venezuela and without expectations that Caracas would ultimately establish such relations, Taiwan decided to provide financial and material support to the Venezuelan people. “Taiwan is always willing and available to step up when being called upon to address global and regional challenges,” Kao said upon announcing the aid. “Taiwan will be there as a true friend and credible partner as we restore the great promise that is the future of Venezuela.”
As Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu put it in a tweet at the time, “[w]e want to help bring back democracy, stability & prosperity in Venezuela. The people deserve a brighter future.” The foreign minister’s interview with Breit Bart also provides more details. This message mirrors US government statements on the crisis. Tweeting on April 30, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote, “[w]hat we are seeing today in Venezuela is the will of the people to peacefully change the course of their country from one of despair to one of freedom and democracy.” National Security Advisor John Bolton offered a similar take on May 1:
The people of Venezuela continue to make it clear they are done with Maduro and are taking to the streets to loudly and unequivocally demand the return of their democracy and prosperity from the corrupt dictatorship that stole it from them. We stand with the people of Venezuela.
Taiwan’s approach to Venezuela is just one of the many ways in which the island has been in lockstep with the United States on American foreign policy goals. Last year, the United States imposed new sanctions on the sale of Iranian oil, aiming to bring exports to zero. In November 2018, the Trump administration granted waivers to Taiwan and seven other countries, granting them more time to cut off oil purchases from Iran and shift to other suppliers. Over the intervening months, Taiwan was one of only three countries to successfully halt oil imports from Iran—unlike China, and even US treaty allies Japan, South Korea, and Turkey—thus contributing to the US maximum pressure campaign on Tehran.
This is not the first US maximum pressure campaign to which Taiwan has made a meaningful contribution. As the Trump administration ramped up pressure on Pyongyang during 2017, Taiwan moved to ban all bilateral trade with North Korea. Taipei did so despite the fact that it is not bound by any United Nations Security Council resolutions due to its exclusion from the UN (which will not even allow Taiwanese passport holders to enter UN headquarters as tourists). When former US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley made remarks at an emergency Security Council meeting on North Korea in November 2017, she included Taiwan as one of the countries that “have taken their own strong actions against North Korea’s threat to peace” and “have selflessly put the security of all of us above their individual political and economic interests,” thus earning “the gratitude of the international community for their responsible actions.”
Taiwan has not only supported the United States in confrontations with rogue regimes, but in more wide-ranging efforts to promote liberal values as well. Most notable in this regard is cooperation on religious freedom issues. Last July, Secretary Pompeo hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, an event that focused “on concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change.” When the State Department sought to plan a follow-up conference focused on a specific region, Taiwan jumped at the chance to play host.
The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry, hosted the Taipei Religious Freedom Conference in early March. Experts from roughly a dozen countries gathered together for two days of dialogue focused on promoting religious freedom and human rights in the Indo-Pacific region. President Tsai Ing-wen, Foreign Minister Wu, and Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan all delivered speeches, as did Sam Brownback, the Trump administration’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
These are just a few examples of the many areas in which Taiwan supports and shares US foreign policy goals. Taiwan joined the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in 2014 despite facing only an indirect threat from the terrorist organization. Via the Global Cooperation Training Framework (GCTF), Taiwan and the United States have co-hosted a number of workshops aimed at advancing shared objectives in areas ranging from global health to transnational crime to media literacy. Foreign Minister Wu has even spoken out in support of the Trump administration’s trade confrontation with Beijing, noting that it may have negative short-term consequences for Taiwan’s economy, but arguing that over the long-term, “it serves for a better future.”
At first glance, it may appear as if the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, nonproliferation efforts with Iran and North Korea, religious freedom, and global trade concerns are a disparate basket of issues. Yet there are common threads running through these various foreign policy challenges. For in all of these instances, Taiwan is advancing foreign policy goals that accord very closely with values of great importance to Taipei (and the United States): a peaceful international environment, a stable and equitable international order, and the advance of human rights and democracy within Asia and beyond.
On the one hand, Taiwan seeks to advance peace and universal values because these are worthy ends in themselves. Yet Taiwan does have more parochial concerns as well. It seeks to shape a world in which democratic governance proliferates, in which human rights are vigorously defended, in which peaceful interaction between governments is the norm, in which free and fair trade predominates—because such a world would be a much safer world for Taiwan.
In a statement to the Micronesia Presidents’ Summit in February, Secretary Pompeo described Taiwan as “a democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world.” For its part, unfortunately, the United States has not always been the reliable partner that Taiwan needs. To be sure, the Trump administration is the friendliest to Taiwan in recent memory. Perhaps most notably, it seems to have returned to a regular arms sales process, and is preparing to sell Taipei new tanks and fighter aircraft, both sorely needed. The Trump administration has continued to cooperate with Taiwan via GCTF and, in the latest workshops, welcomed Japanese government participation as a coordinating partner. US naval and coast guard vessels are regularly and publicly traversing the Taiwan Strait. Administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, have frequently spoken about Taiwan in glowing terms.
Even so, the Trump administration has passed over opportunities to enhance ties, like sending senior officials to Taiwan for bilateral talks at the opening of the new Taipei headquarters for the American Institute in Taiwan. Nor could the administration be bothered to send a high-ranking official to greet President Tsai on her transit through Hawaii earlier this year. It has been four years since the last round of Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks and Washington has not meaningfully engaged Taipei on the possibility of a bilateral free trade agreement, which is a top priority for Tsai and which would advance both US economic and strategic interests. Indeed, rather than seeking an expansion of trade ties, the White House imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on Taiwan and has refused to grant the island a waiver.
Perhaps most troubling of all, in April 2017, President Trump told Reuters he would check with Xi Jinping before taking a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen again: “Look, my problem is I have established a very good personal relationship with President Xi … I think he’s doing an amazing job as a leader and I wouldn’t want to do anything that comes in the way of that. So I would certainly want to speak to him first.” Granting Xi that kind of veto power serves neither Taiwan’s interests nor America’s.
If Taiwan is a “force for good” in the world, as Secretary Pompeo described the island, the United States should be working tirelessly to enhance Taipei’s role on the international stage. As the aforementioned examples demonstrate, Taiwan has been and will likely remain a steadfast partner on priority issues for the United States. In deepening bilateral ties in ways that will enhance Taiwan’s prosperity, security, and international space, the United States would not only show itself to be a faithful friend, but would also make Taiwan a more effective partner in advancing universal values and tackling today’s most complex foreign policy challenges.
The main point: Taiwan has been a dependable partner for the United States on a number of the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities. In taking steps to deepen bilateral relations, Washington can better equip Taipei to advance shared interests and shared values.