Defending Against Drift Amid Advancing US-Taiwan Relations

Defending Against Drift Amid Advancing US-Taiwan Relations

Defending Against Drift Amid Advancing US-Taiwan Relations

In my previous article for the Global Taiwan Brief, I argued that Taipei and Washington should agree to a shared agenda for the future of their bilateral relationship. At present, ties are as strong as they have been in years, if not decades. The Trump administration has normalized the arms sales process and approved the sale of needed big-ticket items, the president has signed legislations meant to deepen bilateral ties, two-way trade is robust, senior officials across the Trump administration are strongly supportive of the US-Taiwan relationship, and Taiwan has been a dependable partner in pursuing a number of diverse US foreign policy priorities.

Even so, there is no guarantee of future progress. Indeed, there is a real risk of drift in the relationship, especially with presidential elections in both Taiwan and the United States scheduled for 2020. President Tsai Ing-wen’s transits through the United States were successful, but are now in the rearview mirror. There are ongoing negotiations regarding the purchase of several dozen new F-16 fighter aircraft, but the notification of that sale will likely soon be behind us as well. What comes next for US-Taiwan relations? There is no obvious answer to that question.

A Model Agenda

Negotiators from the United States and Taiwan—perhaps American Institute in Taiwan Director Brent Christensen and his foreign ministry counterparts—should sit down to settle on an answer. In my previous piece, I suggested the answer should come in the form of a shared agenda, “a succinct but wide-ranging public plan to deepen ties that both sides can use to measure progress and to hold each other accountable.” The agenda should be specific enough to require action from both parties to meet stated goals, but vague enough to allow for flexibility in how those goals are pursued. A basic bilateral agenda might look like this:

  • Diplomatic Relations

The United States will continue to base its approach to bilateral relations on the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances. The United States will carry out Taiwan policy in accordance with the American “One-China” policy, which it will modernize as needed to ensure that the policy advances American interests in Asia in the current century.

Taiwan conceives of the United States as its most important diplomatic partner and will continue to prioritize the US-Taiwan relationship in the conduct of its foreign policy. Taiwan recognizes the United States’ interest in stability in the Taiwan Strait and will take active steps to ensure long-term stability there and in the Indo-Pacific region more broadly.

While continuing to invest in bilateral people-to-people, educational, cultural, and broader societal ties, the United States and Taiwan will adopt a collaborative approach on the international stage. In particular, the United States and Taiwan will work together to advance a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

The United States and Taiwan will explore opportunities to jointly promote international religious freedom, advance global health, counter transnational crime, uphold international law, and assist third parties enhance their resilience in the face of foreign malign influence.

The United States will support and, where possible, facilitate Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy or its successor. It will encourage Taiwan’s diplomatic partners to maintain their formal relations with Taiwan. It will also continue to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. Where Taiwan lacks such participation, the United States will support Taiwan’s interests as long as those interests are not contrary to those of the United States.

Taiwan will seek to expand its role in providing foreign aid and infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific region. It will leverage its formal diplomatic ties to support US goals in the South Pacific, as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America. It will continue to support US efforts to denuclearize North Korea, to encourage market reform in China, and to encourage responsible choices in the design and build-out of next-generation communications networks.

  • Defense Relations

The United States and Taiwan agree that an equitable balance of military power across the Taiwan Strait is necessary to maintain stability in the Taiwan area. The United States and Taiwan will work together to enhance Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in the air, at sea, on the ground, and in other domains. They will strive to ensure Taiwan’s armed forces are well prepared to respond to a variety of contingencies, from military intimidation up to and including invasion.

Taiwan will commit the resources needed to do so and strive to grow its defense budget at a rate that outpaces the rate of inflation. Taiwan will adopt reforms deemed necessary to meet growing challenges.

When considering arms sales, the United States will adopt an approach consistent with Ronald Reagan’s secret presidential directive regarding the 1982 US-China Communiqué. [1] The United States will provide equipment, logistical support, and training as deemed necessary to enhance Taiwan’s multi-domain self-defense capability. If requested, the United States will provide advice to Taiwan regarding defense strategy, force structure, and force posture.

The United States will ensure its own military is capable of defending American interests throughout the Indo-Pacific region. The United States and Taiwan militaries will work together to enhance their abilities to defend against, and to conduct, offensive political warfare. The United States and Taiwan will explore opportunities to deepen Taiwan’s involvement in the regional security architecture, to include engagement with the United States’ treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific.

  • Economic Relations

The United States and Taiwan will commit to a continued expansion of trade and financial ties. Each will explore ways to address its own barriers to such expansion and both will engage in bilateral talks, held at least annually, to raise issues and take up concerns. The United States and Taiwan will consider both formal and informal tools to expand economic relations.

Taiwan will seek ways to expand access to its agricultural market for American farmers. It will continue to enact laws and regulations to strengthen intellectual property rights protections and will work towards stringent enforcement. Taiwan will also take steps to further open and enhance the flexibility of its financial system and adopt regulations and regulatory processes that are in line with international practices.

The United States will work with Taiwan to address its concerns over section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

The United States and Taiwan will cooperate in designing a strategy to ensure the security of global high-tech supply chains. The United States and Taiwan will pursue collaboration to safeguard global leadership in chip design and fabrication. They will fortify their respective export control regimes and bolster efforts to counter industrial espionage in order to deny potential adversaries access to technology with implications for national security and human rights concerns.

Taiwan will strive to diversify its economic partners so that it is not overly reliant on a single market. The United States will assist Taiwan in this effort.

The United States will support Taiwan’s efforts to engage in multilateral forums focused on economic issues and to join international trade agreements from which Taipei will benefit.


The Trump and Tsai administrations have taken important steps to enhance their partnership and deepen bilateral relations. There should be a desire on the part of both sides to continue doing so, as shared interests—from peace in the Taiwan Strait to a free and open Indo-Pacific—are both significant and substantial. In order to advance those interests and to set the relationship on a firmer footing for the future, the United States and Taiwan should adopt a roadmap, such as the one offered above, to guide the relationship over the coming years. To avert drift or stagnation in US-Taiwan relations, it is time for Washington and Taipei to answer a fundamental question: “What comes next?”

The main point: In order to ensure that US-Taiwan relations continue to advance in a productive fashion, the United States and Taiwan should negotiate and adopt a shared agenda for their bilateral relationship.

[1] “In short, the US willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. I should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of US foreign policy.”

“In addition, it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.” Quoted in James Lilley and Jeffrey Lilley, China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), 248.