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.
Finally, on economics. Taiwan is a member of the World Trade Organization. As such, it is the world’s 13th-freest economy according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, and therefore, a positive force upon the free flow of trade and investment.
Second, we have to act to make the most of these benefits.
This means greater government-to-government contact. It is crazy that the US is so constrained in its contact with a country that has so much to offer. The Travel Act offered a number of ideas for increased, sustained engagement that should be taken up by the Administration. The Administration should also end the suspense over US government attendance at the opening of the new de facto embassy in Taipei, and name a high-level cabinet official, as well as commit to sending one such official every year. The Secretaries of Energy and Health and Human Services make particularly good sense. As for the State Department, it is about time the US engaged at least at the Assistant Secretary level.
It means negotiation of a bi-lateral US-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement. It is mind-boggling that this has never been a priority for the US. Especially now that the US is lacking willing bi-lateral treaty partners, Taiwan is such an obvious choice.
It means making an all-out push for Taiwan’s involvement, if not membership, in international organizations that is so vigorous as to put at risk parts of our relationships with other members of these groups, allies as well as frenemies. The first most plausible target is INTERPOL.
And, of course, as always, it involves providing Taiwan the weapons it needs to make the strongest possible contribution to its own defense. But this has to be about more than procurement, and about more than US responsibilities. For its part, the US has to recommit to a regular schedule of arms sales, one in keeping with an integrated plan for defending Taiwan; Taiwan has to commit to making reasonable, responsible calculations about its requirements.
There is nothing new in this list of recommendations. But it is not the lack of ideas that is the problem. The problem is the lack of will to move on them with the sustained energy necessary to make them happen. As long as that effort ebbs and flows with Chinese threats and conciliation, they will remain on think tank drawing boards. To fix this, we need to change the way we think about Taiwan.
Walter Lohman is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
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