Mon, Apr 30, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Walter Lohman On Taiwan: Rethinking US-Taiwan relations

There is nothing like a live fire military drill to focus the mind. By putting the threat in such stark relief, China’s military exercises and the accompanying tour of a couple PLA bombers around Taiwan last week offer a perfect opportunity to take a fresh look at how the US approaches the relationship.

There has been a lot of good news on this account over the last year, most recently the approval of licenses for American companies to assist in Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. But even with the good steps the Trump administration is taking, there continues to be a broader conceptual problem with the American approach, one that limits the potential of US-Taiwan relations.

We see Taiwan in almost exclusively defensive terms.

Take the National Security Strategy put out at the end of last year. Friends of Taiwan were very pleased to see the most significant reference in an NSS since 2002. Yet, it was still only reaffirmation of American traditional commitment to provide for Taiwan’s defense needs and to deter coercion.

America sees Taiwan almost exclusively as a beneficiary of its strategy, not a contributor. And because the benefit Taiwan receives is protection from China’s ardor for unification, this makes Taiwan policy a subset of China policy. So our attention to Taiwan is inevitably determined by developments in China’s approach to it as well as by developments in US-China relations. Congressional interest peaks and the US is more likely to make an arms sale, for instance, when the threat from China is high. Conversely, good Chinese behavior promotes complacency in both branches of government.

As China’s international clout grows — and it will — and its military capabilities expand, this ad hoc policy making approach will lose. The side which has a strategy and is planning for the future — China — will win. This will, of course, be bad for Taiwan. But it will also be bad for the United States.

So how do we make this conceptual shift to an approach that is truly strategic?

First, we have to look at what Taiwan has to offer separate from its relationship with China.

Taiwan is a net provider to geopolitical stability. At a time when, as Freedom House puts it, “democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe,” and Beijing is more confident in asserting its own model of governance, Taiwan holds out hope to the Indo-Pacific region that there is another way and that governance is not a function of ethnicity. Democratic accountability enhances stability because capriciousness, adventurism and war carry a political price. The process of building consensus through open political processes imposes discipline on international behavior.

Taiwan is also a net provider to the rules based order. It has territorial disputes with its neighbors, some of them related to claims it largely shares with Beijing. Yet, it is not Taiwanese ships and aircraft enforcing these claims that the region is concerned about. Taiwan adheres to a wide range of international agreements and standards of organizations, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Palermo Protocol to prevent trafficking in persons. It is also quietly shifting to a position on its claims in the South China Sea that is more in keeping with customary international law and less coincident with Beijing’s position.

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