In the past few years, US decisionmakers have come to realize the Asia-Pacific region is critically important to US interests. It will only increase in importance in the future. This perception was emphasized in a US Department of Defense report which said: “We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.”
A number of considerations serve as drivers for this US pivot. Economically, the Asia-Pacific region is the US’ largest source of imports and its second-largest export region after North America. Politically, several Asia-Pacific countries are emerging as major global players. Others are increasingly important in regional politics.
Many claim that strategic considerations — particularly in view of the rise of China — are chiefly responsible for the pivot to Asia. US analysts say that defense spending is understated by China and that its military budget has been increasing for decades. The Pentagon also warns that while cross-strait relations have improved, “China’s military shows no sign of slowing its efforts to prepare for Taiwan Strait contingencies.” Perhaps most worrisome, however, is what some view as a pattern of belligerent Chinese foreign policy. Since 2010, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the East China Sea has set off alarm bells for national defense departments.
What does the pivot mean for Taiwan? There are some who fear that, while Washington bolsters it links with other Asia-Pacific governments, Taipei is being ignored. Such fears are unfounded. Taiwan does not have a high-profile role in the strategic shift in US policy, but Taipei has not been forgotten completely. US officials have repeatedly stated Washington’s support for Taipei.
During Congressional hearings, former US assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell said: “An important part of this turn to Asia is maintaining a robust and multidimensional unofficial relationship with Taiwan and consistent with this interest is the US’ strong and enduring commitment to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
In November 2011, then-US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said: “We have a strong relationship with Taiwan, an important security and economic partner.”
In March last year, she added: “We’ve strengthened our unofficial relationship with Taiwan.”
The US is working to elevate unofficial political ties with Taiwan. In September 2011, former US assistant secretary of commerce Suresh Kumar journeyed to Taiwan to discuss trade and political issues. High-ranking Taiwan military officials travel frequently to the US for consultations. In addition to raising the level of bilateral contact, the US continues to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. It protests any moves by the UN to identify Taiwan as a province of China or to otherwise determine its political status.
It is also noteworthy that in September last year, the US announced that visitors from Taiwan could use the US Visa Waiver Program.
The US maintains a robust economic relationship with Taiwan. Taiwan is the US’ 10th-largest trading partner, 15th-largest export market and 10th-largest supplier of goods. In February this year, the two countries agreed to resume stalled talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement after a six-year hiatus. Taipei hopes that the discussions will pave the way for membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free-trade agreement.