As the US started this year with a Congress controlled by the Democrats, I wrote an opinion piece for the Heritage Foundation on "America's Stake in Taiwan" to help new congressmen and senators put Taiwan into a global perspective. Now that the Legislative Yuan in Taipei is contemplating this year's defense budget, I thought I would share my observations on the relationship between the US and Taiwan.
In a nutshell, I want our new representatives in Washington, Democrats and Republicans alike, to focus on one fact: Taiwan is one of the most important nations in democratic Asia. After all, its population is bigger than Australia's, its GDP larger than Indonesia's and its technology base second only to Japan's.
Taiwan is the US' eighth-largest trading partner -- with two-way trade at US$60 billion last year -- and its sixth-largest agricultural customer. For more than half a century, the nation has been one of the US' important defense and intelligence partners, first as a bulwark against the former alliance between the Soviet Union and China, later in support of forces resisting communism in Southeast Asia and now as a partner monitoring China's expanding strategic presence in the Pacific.
But it is a partnership in peril as Washington is distracted by Iraq and the Middle East and as Taiwanese politicians and voters sense -- rightly or wrongly -- that US commitment to their democracy is wavering.
In a vicious circle, an uncertain US commitment undermines Taiwan's consensus on its own defense, which, in turn, annoys US leaders and policymakers. Complicating matters further is the vast expanse of business networks that have intertwined the US, Taiwan and China.
This has widened the gulf between national security interests and business interests in the US and Taiwan about China.
Conventional wisdom in Washington -- and perhaps Taipei as well -- holds that economic freedoms are inextricably tied to political reforms and hence China will become democratic because its economy is liberalizing.
While there was evidence for this in the 1980s as China's political and economic freedoms blossomed together, the exact opposite has been the case since the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. China's political and human rights are far more repressed now than they were in 1990, while the economy is far more open.
Yet, China's economy cannot be called "free." It remains a mercantilist structure with sole authority vested in the state -- and ultimately the Communist Party.
Taiwan's export economy is now caught within China's orbit.
Taiwanese politicians must also consider a future in which responsibility for Taiwan's defense, like Hong Kong's, rests in Beijing's hands.
This would become inevitable if Taiwan declines to keep its own defenses strong.
And Taipei could save a lot of money if it would let Beijing assume the responsibility for defending it from any other power in the region. Some in Taiwan may find it perfectly benign to rely on Beijing for security but most, I suspect, do not.
In 2005, People First Party Chairman James Soong (
Soong later indicated that Hu's pledge meant that Taiwan needs no defenses from China.
Today, some Taiwan politicians call for a peace agreement with China whereby Taiwan would agree that it is part of an undefined "one China."
With Taiwan's defenses growing obsolete while China's military modernization accelerates, Taiwan's military can no longer rely on its technological edge to defeat a Chinese attack.
Taiwan's defense budget for this year faces major program cuts in the opposition-dominated legislature. Nonetheless, the nation's politicians certainly must see that a defense accommodation with China would supplant any security relationship with the US or other Asian democracies.
As uncertainty over Taipei's defense budget continues, I fear that Washington must now calculate what its position in Asia would look like should Taiwan drift into China's sphere.
Does it matter if Washington acquiesces to Taiwan's absorption by China? It should.
Former US secretary of state Colin Powell observed that "whether China chooses peace or coercion to resolve its differences with Taiwan will tell us a great deal about the kind of relationship China seeks not only with its neighbors, but with us."
It would be a shame to let war threats from the world's most powerful dictatorship damage one of the world's most dynamic democracies.
Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger warned that an international system which makes peace the highest priority is at the mercy of its most ruthless member, and there is an overwhelming incentive to appease its demands regardless of how unreasonable they are. Given China's myriad territorial claims on India, Japan, South Korea, etc, one must ask if China's war threats would end with Taiwan.
Moreover, given China's reliance on international manufacturing supply chains, war is clearly no more in China's interests than the US'. In this sense, Taiwan is a touchstone of the US commitment to democracy in Asia.
Until Asia's democracies can rest assured, as the magnitude of China's military might catches up with its economic power, that Beijing does not seek military preeminence in the region, US strategists should resurrect their historic rule of thumb for Asia: Keep "island Asia" out of the hands of "mainland Asia."
The US' strategic position in Asia is approaching a tipping point vis-a-vis China. Some believe the US' only interest in Taiwan is to ensure that the "Taiwan issue" is resolved peacefully, a policy in which "process" trumps "outcome."
In 1945, US president Harry Truman declared that a "strong, united and democratic China" was in "the most vital interests of the United States."
Two out of three is not good enough. Until China is democratic, the most vital US interest must be to maintain its strategic posture in the western Pacific, and Taiwan is essential to achieving that end.
John Tkacik is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
Taiwan has for decades singlehandedly borne the brunt of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist China — until now. Ever since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had the temerity to call for a transparent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been turning the screws on Canberra. This has included unleashing aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats to intimidate Australian policymakers, enacting punitive tariffs on its exports, and threatening an embargo on Chinese tourists and students to the nation. A tense situation became more serious on June 19 after Morrison revealed that a “sophisticated state-based actor” — read: China — had launched a
There have been media reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to hold military exercises in August to simulate seizing the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) in the South China Sea. In the past, only Coast Guard Administration (CGA) personnel have been stationed there, but the Ministry of National Defense has dispatched the Republic of China Marine Corps to the islands, nominally for “ex-situ training,” to prevent a Chinese attack under the guise of military drills. The move is only a temporary measure and not sufficiently proactive. Instead, the government should officially declare sovereignty over the islands and station troops
Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) is to be Taiwan’s next representative to the US. Hsiao is well versed in international affairs and Taiwan-US relations. In her days as a student in the US, she was a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) and served as chief executive of the Democratic Progressive Party’s US mission. She is familiar with a broad spectrum of Taiwanese affairs in the US. FAPA hopes that Hsiao, after taking up her new post, would continue to deepen and normalize relations between Taiwan and the US, and that she would try to get a free-trade agreement