The passage of various acts by US Congress strengthening bilateral ties, public acknowledgement of passages by the US Navy in the Taiwan Strait, higher-profile and more public reciprocal visits by officials and the symbolic rechristening earlier this month of Taiwan’s counterpart to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the Coordination Council for North American Affairs (CCNAA, 北美事務協調委員), to Taiwan Council for US Affairs (TCUSA, 臺灣美國事務委) have not quieted voices within the deep-green camp whom lament what they regard as the lack of more substantial progress in US-Taiwan relations and have tended, furthermore, to attribute all of the progress to President Donald Trump. On the other side of the political spectrum, the pan-blue camp has accused Tsai of being good at “politicking” and snuggling up with the Americans, but that she has only succeeded in alienating Beijing, a relationship that the Kuomintang (KMT) has traditionally claimed it is better positioned to handle. Emerging contenders within the KMT, such as Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), are meanwhile proposing much closer engagement with China and, while this remains to be seen, a substantial decoupling from bilateral exchanges with the US, a centerpiece of the Tsai administration since 2016. This possible realignment of Taiwan’s foreign policy, contingent on the results of the January 2020 elections, will mark a consequential crossroads in Taiwan’s history.
The Incrementalist Approach
Critics, however, misunderstand the nature of US-Taiwan ties and the context in which the relationship has flourished over the past three years. As the party prepares to select its candidate—President Tsai or her challenger, former Premier William Lai (賴清德)—for the January 2020 elections, it is crucial that the facts about the means and ends of that important relationship be properly understood. Doing so is important not only to dispel the expectations among members of the Taiwan public who have lamented the supposed lack of “real” progress and to provide a fair assessment of what has been—and could reasonably be—accomplished by the Trump and Tsai administrations.
It is important to point out, first and foremost, that the progress that has been accomplished in bilateral ties is the result not, as Tsai’s critics seem to believe, simply or even primarily of decisions made at the Oval Office in Washington, DC. Rather, this rapprochement has occurred for two principal reasons.
First, the closer ties stem from the continuation of an attitudinal shift vis-à-vis China across the US government system, in academia and within the public that preceded Trump’s election in November 2016. Members of Congress, American diplomats and defense officials, not President Trump, who is busy dealing with larger issues, have made this possible and because it is in the US national interest to do so.
Second, this progress has been made possible by an administration in Taipei that has shown restraint, patience, and understood the difficult context in which the US-Taiwan relationship had to evolve. The Tsai administration’s agreement to prioritize substance over form, and often to do so quietly and in a way that dovetailed with US interests, were also crucial elements in this success. The government in Taipei understood that the US response to Chinese assertiveness needed to be calibrated so as not to unduly escalate tensions in the triangular relationship, in response to which Beijing would conceivably have focused its retaliatory acts against Taiwan. Moreover, developments in the US-Taiwan relationship had to be low-profile enough so as not to draw the attention of a US president who might have concluded that such efforts would risk derailing his policy priorities, chief among them the intensifying trade war between China and the United States. Thus, responsible expectations from Taipei, and an equally cautious and incremental approach by American diplomats to deepening ties with Taipei have been necessary to avoid intervention by the White House.
This incremental step-by-step approach has furthermore played an important role in acclimatizing other democracies to the possibility of developing their own more substantive ties with Taipei, an important step in allowing Taiwan to play a more constructive role in a multilateral setting.
All in all, the gradual progress that has been achieved in US-Taiwan relations since 2016 has been sufficient to meet the requirements of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) while providing incremental improvements in the relationship that ensured that the Republic of China’s (Taiwan) continued existence and prosperity as a sovereign entity were not unduly affected by China’s decision to constrain and coerce Taiwan. Despite the loss of official diplomatic allies, symbolic attacks on Taiwan’s statehood (e.g., changed references to Taiwan on global company websites) and Beijing’s preventing Taiwan from participating in multilateral fora, three years into the Tsai administration, Taiwan’s ability to function and to prosper as a sovereign state remains largely unchanged. Further actions by the United States will ensure that this continues to be the case.
As Senator Cory Gardner said in a statement after he reintroduced the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act in late May, “The United States should use every tool to support Taiwan’s standing on the international stage. This […] demands a whole-of-government approach to stand up to China’s bullying tactics, and will send a strong message to nations that there will be consequences for supporting Chinese actions that undermine Taiwan.”
Finally, the many areas where incremental progress has occurred in the past three years have also created real facts on the ground and thus ensured that it will be more difficult for any future US administration to undo them. It follows that an inexperienced president with less knowledge of the political nuances in Taipei, during this period of great flux, who makes greater demands of US assistance directly or indirectly may likely be met with disapproval by US officials and more likely attract the attention of top officials in the White House in a manner that could be detrimental to Taiwan. So far, US officials have been rather pleased with the Tsai administration’s careful approach to the triangular relationship, but all of this could change quickly should Taipei adopt a new course.
US ‘Red Lines’
Recognizing that a free and sovereign Taiwan remains very much in the US interest as it seeks to maintain a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, and cognizant of the fact that Beijing will likely remain bent on undermining that relationship regardless of who is elected in the 2020 elections, there are certain areas where a more assertive US posture toward the Taiwan Strait might be advisable.
Among other things, Washington ought to clearly signal its own “red lines” in the Taiwan Strait so as to preempt future efforts by Beijing to alter the “status quo.” A more proactive and forward-looking setting of the rules by Washington would have the advantage of putting Beijing in a position where escalation would “break the rules” and therefore face the consequences for its actions. Rather than react to provocations, establishing “red lines” and clearly stating the costs of violating them would ensure a more preemptive rather than passive/reactive approach to sustaining stability in the Taiwan Strait. Doing so would also signal a strong US commitment to the “status quo,” send a reassuring message to Taipei, and reduce the risks of Beijing miscalculating by assuming that it can ramp up its coercive posture against Taiwan without suffering the consequences of doing so. Washington should also make it clear that any action by Beijing that threatens or undermines the sovereignty of Taiwan would be met with a series of countervailing responses that would rebalance the situation. Besides dissuading Beijing and compelling it to back off, the detailing of concrete measures by Washington—if Beijing does x, Washington’s response will include y and z—would serve the additional function of strengthening the legitimacy of the government in Taipei.
No area warrants clearer signaling than the military, where in the past two decades the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased its qualitative and quantitative advantage over Taiwan. While Washington should continue to encourage Taipei to increase its defense budget and make important changes in the areas of preparedness—and of course by providing Taiwan with the defense articles it needs to deter and counter China—it is also imperative that the U.S. make it clear that it will not brook PLA adventurism in the Taiwan Strait. Clearer “red lines” in this area would bolster Taiwan’s overall deterrence and solidify the view within the PLA that it has yet to acquire sufficient capabilities and experience to warrant a military campaign against Taiwan. A “tripwire” posture, one which would clearly state the conditions in which the US military would step in, would also reduce the likelihood that the civilian leadership in Beijing will ignore the advice of its military generals and calculate that it can afford to initiate military action against Taiwan. (Such decisions must be made by Americans themselves based on assessments of what is in their national interest.) Amid signs of a slowing economy in China and the likelihood of trouble domestically, clear “red lines” in the Taiwan Strait would shut off the option of military adventurism in the Taiwan Strait as an external distraction intended to reduce domestic pressure on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Avoiding miscalculation in the Taiwan Strait, with scenarios possibly compelling US allies or the United States itself to intervene, is also very much in the US interest and would bring clear benefits to Taiwan. Closer coordination between the United States and Taiwan on those “red lines” requires leadership both in Washington and Taipei.
The main point: The relationship between Taiwan and the United States has made important, albeit incremental, progress since 2016. A less responsible and patient approach by Taipei, perhaps accompanied by demands for a more visible commitment by the US, would risk provoking Beijing while alienating Washington.