Earlier this month, the US Department of State released its report on President Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy, “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision.” The report, timed to coincide with the East Asia Summit and the second iteration of the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, both held in Bangkok, provides an overview of the Trump administration’s vision for the Indo-Pacific and of the policies it has adopted in pursuit of that vision. As can be discerned from the report, the State Department views Taiwan as an important partner—but Taiwan arguably features less prominently than it could and should.
Taiwan is listed as one of the countries with which the United States is “joining […] to face emerging challenges.” The report also asserts that Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy “aligns closely” with America’s “vision and approach in the Indo-Pacific region.” In a section on “bilateral partnerships,” the report spends two paragraphs (more than on Japan and on the Republic of Korea) describing how the United States is “strengthening and deepening” its relationship with Taiwan and expressing concerns over the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) “actions to bully Taiwan,” which the report says “undermine the cross-Strait status quo.” This last argument is important for the United States to make publicly and repeatedly. Beijing has sought to paint Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current president, as a troublemaker in the Taiwan Strait. Combatting that narrative by pointing to the PRC’s quite transparent efforts to upset stability in the Strait is crucial, as it puts pressure on Beijing to reverse course and on Taiwan’s friends and partners to stand by the island.
The discussion of US-Taiwan relations in the report highlights arms sales, the Global Cooperation and Training Framework (though not by name), and the first-ever Pacific Islands Dialogue, which Taiwan and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) co-hosted. In its sentence on the GCTF, the report describes Taiwan and AIT cooperating “to convene hundreds of Indo-Pacific policymakers and experts on issues including public health, women’s empowerment, media disinformation, and the digital economy.” The administration clearly sees Taiwan not only as a consumer of American security, but as a contributor to regional development.
That view is clear in some of the report’s other mentions of Taiwan as well. In the report’s chapter on “enhancing economic prosperity,” the State Department includes Taiwan in a list of “like-minded partners” with which it is working to advance “an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable internet.” In the chapter, “Championing Good Governance,” the State department writes, “the United States is developing partnerships in governance priorities with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, and others.” In neither case, however, does the report provide specifics on the nature of that cooperation, as it frequently does when it comes to cooperation with Japan, for example.
The report’s final mention of Taiwan comes in the conclusion, which notes that the Congress has “underscored the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense and international space.” This mention comes in a broader discussion of the bipartisan, congressional support for the Trump administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. Coming in the report’s closing paragraphs, this discussion may seem like an afterthought, but its inclusion is important, especially for international audiences. It conveys two things to foreign governments. First, at a time of deep political divisions in the United States, the Indo-Pacific strategy is a rare point of relative consensus. In other words, potential adversaries should not bother seeking to exploit political differences to undermine Democratic support for this aspect of the president’s foreign policy, as such efforts will be ineffective. Second, this discussion of bipartisan support among lawmakers is meant to convey that the current approach to the Indo-Pacific, at least at the broad level, is likely to outlast the current president. This, of course, includes the approach to Taiwan.
Taiwan is the last country named in the report. Indeed, it is the only one specifically raised in the report’s conclusion. That the United States is concerned about its fate and sees the island as a valuable partner is not hard to see. Even so, Taiwan could have, and probably should have, had a stronger presence in the report.
Perhaps most noticeable is Taiwan’s absence from the report’s discussion of US efforts to expand trade with the Indo-Pacific economies. Taiwan, a country of only 23.5 million people, is consistently a top-15 trading partner for the United States and occupies a key node in global high-tech supply chains. As Dan Blumenthal and I argued in a report for the Project 2049 Institute earlier this year, Taiwan is an excellent candidate for a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), which would advance the free and open Indo-Pacific vision and advance important US economic interests in the region.
Taiwan’s absence from the report’s discussion of trade is especially notable in light of the inclusions of the new US-Japan agreements and the renegotiated Republic of Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), given that Tokyo and Seoul were hesitant to engage in new bilateral trade talks. President Tsai, on the other hand, has prioritized a bilateral FTA. Put simply, that the State Department has nothing to report on advances in US-Taiwan trade is a failure of policy; that it offers no aspirations is a failure of imagination.
Consider also Taiwan’s treatment in the report as compared to that of Japan and Vietnam. Taiwan is mentioned 10 times, including five times in two paragraphs. Japan, on the other hand, appears 43 times in the report, while Vietnam appears 29 times. Japan, of course, is the world’s third largest economy, a US treaty ally, and home to the 7th Fleet (and America’s only forward-based aircraft carrier), the 5th Air Force, and the III Marine Expeditionary Force. Compared to Taiwan, Japan has more global heft, more resources, and a larger military, including a substantial blue-water naval force. Vietnam, for its part, is seen as having significant potential as a US partner going forward. Why? It has a young and growing population, strong economic growth, a burgeoning middle class, a healthy skepticism of China’s rise, and a proud history of standing up to far more powerful antagonists.
There is nothing problematic about the frequent Japan and Vietnam mentions. What may be problematic is the lack of balance. This lack of balance stems from two shortcomings of the State Department’s report. First, the report lacks a detailed description of the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, the report sums up the region’s challenges in just a few sentences:
Today, Indo-Pacific nations face unprecedented challenges to their sovereignty, prosperity, and peace. The US National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, recognizes that the most consequential challenge to US and partner interests is the growing challenge to US and partner interests in the growing competition between free and repressive visions of the future international order. Authoritarian revisionist powers seek to advance their parochial interests at others’ expense.
As noted above, the report does make note of China’s “bullying” of Taiwan. But in reading this document, one does not get the sense that the Taiwan Strait is a potentially explosive flashpoint, that the use of force is a distinct possibility, or that a destructive war in the coming years cannot be ruled out. Absent that framing, it is not surprising that the report spends little time discussing efforts to address that challenge. Taiwan is an older US security partner than Japan and faces a far more dire threat than Japan (which, it must be noted, has a crucial role to play in countering that threat). This report does not grapple with that reality.
The report’s second, more fundamental shortcoming—indeed, the Indo-Pacific vision’s fundamental shortcoming—is in the values it describes the United States as embracing and seeking to promote:
Under President Trump’s leadership, the United States is implementing a whole-of-government strategy to champion the values that have served the Indo-Pacific so well: (1) respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations; (2) peaceful resolution of disputes; (3) free, fair, and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements, and connectivity; and (4) adherence to international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight.
Missing here is any mention of human rights, democracy, the advance of human dignity, and the like. The report’s chapter on governance, which briefly addresses these issues, is a single page (by comparison, there are six pages dedicated to diplomatic engagement and eight pages dedicated to enhancing economic prosperity). Although it criticizes China, Cambodia, and Burma for their human rights records, it does not outline an approach to bringing those abuses to a stop.
The United States and Vietnam have important shared interests and should pursue closer relations (as I have argued elsewhere). It is not surprising that the State Department places such an emphasis on its efforts there. But Vietnam is a one-party state with a poor human rights record. That some of America’s democratic allies and partners do not receive similar attention (11 mentions of South Korea, 15 of Australia, 4 of New Zealand) seems like a mistake.
In his recent speech at a Hudson Institute event, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called attention to the ideological aspects of the strategic competition with China. It is hard to take seriously his concern with the ideological competition when his State Department produces a report that pays it little heed. Strategy documents like this one are important because they signal priorities to both internal audiences (i.e., government bureaucracies) and foreign ones. Reading this report, audiences are unlikely to conclude that advancing liberal values is a priority in the Indo-Pacific.
An Indo-Pacific vision that considered human rights and democracy as foundational values and a strategy that had their advancement as a central goal would likely envision a far more robust role for Taiwan. The liberal democracies in Asia with strong, resilient institutions are few in number and each has a role to play in advancing freedom in the region. It is unfortunate that the president’s Indo-Pacific strategy fails to value their capacities to make such contributions, or to recognize that such contributions would advance key American interests.
The main point: The US State Department’s Indo-Pacific vision report presents Taiwan as a valuable partner. Even so, Taiwan could have, and should have, had a stronger presence in the report.