Moving to a New Normal in US-Taiwan Relations

Moving to a New Normal in US-Taiwan Relations

Moving to a New Normal in US-Taiwan Relations

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has just concluded his trip to Taiwan, where he met with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and other officials. With President Donald Trump’s first term winding down and a distinct possibility that he will fail in his reelection bid, the president’s Asia advisers may well be seeking to set a new baseline for US-Taiwan relations with this visit.

The Timing Is Right

The first cabinet-level official to visit Taiwan since 2014 (when the Environmental Protection Agency administrator went) and the highest-ranking US official to visit since the severing of diplomatic relations in 1979, Secretary Azar made his trip at a delicate time for Taiwan. [1]

Taiwan has thus far handled the COVID-19 crisis with aplomb, but it has still not been an easy year for the country. Taipei has faced down the global pandemic in relative isolation, with China continuing to hinder Taiwan’s efforts to engage with the World Health Organization. Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, meanwhile, yet again confirmed China’s malicious intentions towards Taiwan; Xi Jinping (習近平), after all, has explicitly pushed for a “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) arrangement for cross-Strait union.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) last month described the number of Chinese military activities around Taiwan thus far in 2020 as “unprecedented.” Indeed, Wu is worried that the era of peaceful coexistence across the Taiwan Strait may be coming to an end. “A country will often use an exterior crisis to change the domestic focus,” he told reporters. “If we look at the contested issues around China’s periphery, we see that for China, Taiwan would be an extremely convenient sacrificial lamb.”

On top of all that, Taipei has faced renewed concerns about the man in the Oval Office, with former National Security Adviser John Bolton recently painting a picture of a president that thinks little of Taiwan.

The Azar visit, then, kills several birds with one stone. It reassures Taipei that Donald Trump is not about to forsake Taiwan nor give China a veto over American Taiwan policy. The move sends a similar signal to Beijing. It also provides an opportunity for what should be a valuable conversation about public health in the midst of a global pandemic.

A New Normal

Perhaps most importantly, the Azar visit may contribute to the establishment of a new normal in US-Taiwan relations. It has been six years since the EPA administrator went to Taiwan (during the second Obama term) and 20 years since a cabinet secretary did so (the secretary of transportation made the trip in 2000). Given the nature of the US-Taiwan relationship and the two countries’ many shared challenges, interests, and values, there is much to discuss at the highest levels of government. Future presidents should have few qualms about dispatching cabinet members to engage in those discussions.

To ensure that Azar’s visit does mark a reset of sorts—rather than a one-off as the EPA administrator’s was—Trump should send another cabinet secretary to Taiwan before the year is out. A visit from the secretary of commerce to discuss high-tech supply chains or from the US Trade Representative (a cabinet-level position) to launch free trade agreement negotiations would be appropriate, and would go far to establish high-level delegations to Taiwan as something the US government does as a matter of course.

If the president’s Asia policy team is interested in establishing a “new normal” for US-Taiwan relations before January 20, 2021, there are a number of other meaningful undertakings they might consider as well.

Global Health Intelligence Fusion Center

Comparing the American and Taiwanese responses to the COVID-19 outbreak makes for a stark contrast. Taipei’s effort to stymie the virus has been exemplary, while Washington’s has left much to be desired. Indeed, the HHS announcement of Azar’s trip all but explicitly admits that the United States has plenty to learn from Taiwan:

Secretary Azar’s historic visit will strengthen the US-Taiwan partnership and enhance US-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan’s role in the international community is critical, as demonstrated by its remarkable success battling COVID-19 as a free and transparent democratic society.

The reasons for the pandemic’s divergent paths in Taiwan and the United States are many and varied, but one key reason for Taiwan’s success—though not necessarily the most important one—is the early rumblings Taipei heard of a new disease emerging in Wuhan. Taiwan reacted more quickly than anyone else in large part because it had information upon which to act. Importantly, that information was not found in reports from China to the World Health Organization, but rather in a post on a Taiwanese online message board.

Meanwhile, the United States has hamstrung its own capacity for gathering “health intelligence” in China. The US Centers for Disease Control presence in China has shrank in recent years, from 47 employees in 2017 to 14 last year:

Reductions at the US agencies sidelined health experts, scientists, and other professionals who might have been able to help China mount an earlier response to the novel coronavirus, as well as provide the US government with more information about what was coming, according to the people who spoke with Reuters.

In order to address this American shortcoming and to ensure Taiwan has a more comprehensive outlook on global health threats, the two governments should consider establishing a global health intelligence fusion center. Staffed by American and Taiwanese public health and medical professionals and headquartered in Washington or Taipei, the center would enable rapid sharing and analysis of emerging threats. Ideally designed to easily include additional country partners in the future, the fusion center would exemplify practical cooperation and normalize a state of affairs in which US and Taiwanese officials work hand-in-hand on a permanent basis.

Democracy Assurance Joint Standing Committee

Chinese and Russian actors, respectively, have attempted to covertly interfere in both Taiwan’s and the United States’ domestic politics in recent years. In particular, they have sought to manipulate electoral outcomes, sow societal divisions, and undermine faith in democratic processes and institutions. According to the Mueller Report, Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election in two primary ways:

First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence services conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, as Gary Schmitt and I described in a GTI occasional report last year, People’s Republic of China (PRC) “interference in Taiwan’s democracy came to a head in the November 2018 elections.” China used both new and traditional media to propagate disinformation harmful to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨), while also weaponizing ties with local officials, organized crime, and business leaders in order to support Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) candidates.

The threats with which Taiwan and the United States have grappled are not identical, but there are enough similarities to warrant closer cooperation. What’s more, the United States is beginning to come to grips with PRC influence operations on its own shores—indeed, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina recently highlighted both Russian and Chinese efforts to affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. To foster cooperation on these issues, Taipei and Washington should consider establishing a democracy assurance joint standing Committee. Meeting every six months in alternating capitals, committee members would provide updates on malign influence in their home countries, exchange best practices, identify areas for collaboration, and prepare a joint report—with public and confidential versions—to be disseminated to relevant government agencies in Taipei and Washington. As with the health intelligence fusion center, the standing committee should be envisioned as a permanent engagement mechanism within the bilateral relationship and should be open to participation from other interested countries.

Fortress Formosa 2020

A new normal in US-Taiwan relations should feature not only mechanisms to enhance the resilience of both countries in the face of global health and political warfare threats, but also efforts to ensure greater security as traditionally understood. With the People’s Liberation Army posing an ever-greater threat to Taiwan and its neighbors, it is counterproductive for the Pentagon to continue keeping the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces at arm’s length. Instead, the American and Taiwanese navies should announce that their first annual bilateral exercise—perhaps called Fortress Formosa 2020—will be held later this year.

The first iteration might focus on search and rescue, cross-deck helicopter landings, and communications. Over time, the Pentagon and the Ministry of National Defense should seek to scale up to focus on the full complement of surface warfare operations.

Navies will play a significant role in any armed conflict over Taiwan’s fate. The United States has an interest in ensuring that the ROC Navy is highly capable and highly prepared. The US Navy likewise has an interest in ensuring it can communicate and operate seamlessly with its Taiwanese counterpart.

Committing upfront to an annual exercise not only sets a precedent, but makes abundantly clear that US-Taiwan defense relations will look different going forward—that bilateral exercises will be a feature of the broader relationship and not just a product of this current moment in time.


Each of the four proposals offered here—a second cabinet visit to Taiwan this year, a global health intelligence fusion center, a democracy assurance joint standing committee, and a new annual bilateral naval exercise—is designed to outlive the current administration. Were any of these adopted now, the next administration—whether a second Trump term or first Biden term—would be faced with a decision to cancel what had been clearly intended as new and enduring features of the US-Taiwan relationship. Such a decision would not be taken lightly. A new normal is within reach—the Trump administration need only grasp it.

The main point: Secretary Azar’s trip to Taiwan should be just the first step in establishing a new baseline for US-Taiwan engagement going forward.

[1] Seniority is determined by line of succession to the presidency as defined in the Presidential Succession Act.