Marking the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act’s (TRA) enactment and third anniversary in office of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), Taipei and Washington have momentum in their stronger security partnership. Developments include the bipartisan Taiwan Assurance Act in Congress, Tsai’s substantive stopover in Honolulu, high-level talks on national security, regular arms sales, the Defense Department’s signaling of support for Taiwan’s security, and Senate’s confirmation of David Stilwell as an assistant secretary of state, whom Taiwan welcomes. What more needs to be done? What do the incremental improvements mean? What do they not mean?
Improvements in Engagement
Improvements in engagement include numerous developments since early 2019. On March 26, Senators Tom Cotton, Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Catherine Cortez Masto, and Chris Coons, introduced the Taiwan Assurance Act. This legislation (S. 878) is notable for its bipartisan support as well as timing of its introduction during Tsai’s stopover in Honolulu, for which she was pleased. On April 1, Representative Michael McCaul introduced the Taiwan Assurance Act in the House (H.R. 2002). The House passed it on May 7.
On March 26-27, President Tsai enjoyed a smooth stopover in Honolulu (after visits to Palau, Nauru, and Marshall Islands) that entailed substantive discussions with US officials, including Adjutant General Arthur Logan of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency—not just greeting by the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).
On April 15, the administration formally notified Congress of one Foreign Military Sale (FMS) for training of pilots and maintenance of Taiwan’s F-16 fighters at Luke Air Force Base.
In continuation of a practice, retired Admiral Samuel Locklear led a US delegation to observe Taiwan’s improvements in its annual Han Kuang military exercise on April 22-26. More robust military-to-military exchanges have included visits by active-duty generals and admirals and senior enlisted leaders (a relatively new emphasis).
On May 13-21, the secretary general of Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC), David Lee, visited the United States to participate in different meetings with US defense and national security officials, including a meeting in Washington, DC, with National Security Advisor John Bolton. While it was not the first meeting in a NSC-to-NSC channel, Taiwan publicized this meeting as a long-sought visible sign of support. The significance was in both leaderships seeking to enhance mutual understanding in direct, clear communication of priorities and views, sometimes not sufficiently achieved through AIT’s representatives.
On June 1, the Defense Department issued the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. That report raised some hype over its use of “countries” in referring to Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. That one word does not make a change in US diplomacy but is common-sense language in recognition of realities in Taiwan as a de facto, legitimate democracy rather than bowing to political correctness. Indeed, Section 4(b)1 of the TRA stipulates that references to foreign countries in US laws shall apply to Taiwan.
The report’s section on Taiwan reflects mostly continuity in policy while acknowledging that “the salience of defense engagements has increased” as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait to deter, and if necessary, compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence, as well as to prepare for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force while deterring, delaying, or denying third-party intervention to assist Taiwan.
Timed with the report’s release, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) of senior defense officials in Singapore in early June. He discussed Taiwan as a partner, pointing out that the US continues to meet our obligations under the TRA to make defense articles and defense services available to Taiwan for its self-defense.
In contrast, Defense Minister and PLA General Wei Fenghe spoke stridently about not renouncing force against Taiwan and invoked incorrectly the US Civil War to justify that threat. Despite some opinion that the US has raised tension with China partly by upgrading the relationship with Taiwan, Shanahan said that US policy is not about provoking conflict and that he and Wei met to talk about military-to-military interactions, but did not talk about Taiwan.
Even during the SLD to discuss peaceful engagement, the PLA tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
In early June, as expected, the administration reportedly notified Congress informally (before formal notification) of four proposed programs for Foreign Military Sales (FMS) of M1A2 Abrams tanks, TOW anti-armor missiles, Javelin medium-range anti-armor missiles, and Stinger air defense missiles, arms sales worth about $2 billion.
On June 12, the Senate confirmed overwhelmingly (93-4 with 3 not voting) the nomination of retired Air Force Brigadier General David Stilwell as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Stilwell is welcomed by Taiwan, and he is familiar with relevant policy.
June has featured extensive protests in Hong Kong against a proposed law on extradition potentially to China and against its expanding power in Hong Kong, despite the slogan of “one country, two systems.”
Implications for Washington and Taipei
There is more work to be done. There is a five-year gap since the last US Cabinet-rank visit to Taiwan. That visit in 2014 ended the previous 14-year gap without a US Cabinet-rank visit.
In speaking to a conference in Washington on April 9, President Tsai acknowledged that “economic security is national security,” a point President Trump made in announcing the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2017. She stressed that Taiwan seeks a bilateral trade agreement. Language in the proposed Taiwan Assurance Act urges the US Trade Representative to resume meetings in 2019 under the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the goal of reaching a bilateral free trade agreement.
Especially since late 2018, concerns have increased in Taipei and Washington about China’s influence operations and political interference in Taiwan, the United States, and other countries.
Section 5 of the Taiwan Assurance Act contains its most significant language, which would require the President, notably not the State Department, to review its Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan. That document is part of a policy of self-imposed restrictions on the Executive Branch’s contacts with Taiwan’s officials. This policy is subject to review to relax or remove restrictions, with or without the legislative requirement.
The value of the FMS notified to Congress in April was relatively small ($500 million for F-16 pilot training) and the timing occurred during the month commemorating the TRA’s 40th anniversary. Nonetheless, the significance of this single program was in showing that the previous notification of a single FMS program (spare parts for aircraft) in September 2018 was not a fluke and that the administration has repaired the broken process that delayed multiple arms sales in a “package” in favor of regular notifications of programs. The US is showing urgency in helping Taiwan to upgrade its defense, even as the US urges Taiwan to exercise urgency. Moreover, US policy is returning to TRA’s congressional intent, whereby the TRA stipulates the determination of defense articles and defense services “based solely” upon the judgment of the President and Congress about Taiwan’s requirements.
Furthermore, US policy has returned to normal acceptance of Taiwan’s Letters of Request for weapons, not necessarily for approval or denial but at least consideration. Since late 2018, decision-making on Taiwan’s request for M1A2 tanks has been part of careful deliberation of considerations (such as costs, capability, challenges, and mission).
Because the administration resumed regular notifications to Congress of arms sales, their timing reflects a normal, deliberative decision-making process, not political interference in Taiwan. A key pending issue is whether to approve Taiwan’s request for new F-16V fighters.
As stated in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, U.S. support for Taiwan’s self-defense features continuity in serving US and international interests in security, stability, and prosperity; Taipei’s confident and peaceful contacts with Beijing; as well as Taiwan’s unique role in showing a better, democratic path for China.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration signals the partnership with Taiwan more openly. This partnership is not simply strong, but placed in context, it is stronger relative to that pursued under past administrations. This administration sees such a partnership as important in its own right for US interests, not subordinated to the relationship with China.
The administration has articulated expanded interests to include democracy in helping Taiwan to defend against China. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey stated in 2018 that Taiwan’s ability to resist coercion and deter aggression not only will safeguard peace and stability, but “most importantly, it will help protect the free and democratic way of life for the 23 million people of Taiwan.” Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver said in April 2019 that “a strong and secure Taiwan can deter aggression, defend the Taiwan people and their hard-won democracy, and engage on its own terms with the PRC.”
It is a misrepresentation to claim that the US uses Taiwan as a “chess piece,” “bargaining chip,” or “card” in dealings with China. That fallacy is not the approach of Congress or the administration, which sees Taiwan’s importance in its own right.
The United States is not pursuing Cold War-like “containment” of nor provoking “conflict” with China. Some officials in China and even Taiwan have over-emphasized recent US and other naval transits through the Taiwan Strait, though transits are normal through international water. Moreover, from 2007 to April 2019, the US Navy conducted 92 transits through that strait, and the transits increased during the Obama, not Trump, administration.
Shanahan stated at the SLD that the US cooperates with China where there is an alignment of interests and competes with China where we must, but “competition does not mean conflict.” US policy also is not supporting independence for Taiwan but for its people to decide their way of life in a democracy free from coercion or use of force.
Taiwan needs to strengthen defense through implementation of its Overall Defense Concept (ODC) for asymmetric warfare, as the US has urged. In remarks (via video conference) to a conference hosted by Brookings, CSIS, and Wilson Center on April 9 in Washington, President Tsai stated, “the ODC has my support, 100 percent.”
Nonetheless, implementation of the ODC requires resources in increasing defense budgets. A concern focuses on whether Taiwan’s legislature will continue in future years to boost defense and whether any special budget for weapons again will be played in a political game.
The main point: Taiwan is at a strategic crossroads. The Taiwan Assurance Act (incorporating compromise language) shows the bipartisan character of US support for Taiwan. Can the same be said for Taiwan’s leaders as attention focuses on elections? Will they support the momentum in sustaining a stronger Taiwan and a stronger partnership with the United States?