Forty years of unofficial ties between Taiwan and the US have been marked by a transformed engagement in security, defense, economy, culture and other areas. This became evident at a reception to mark the 40th anniversary of the US’ Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in Taipei, where former US House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan applauded Taiwan as a reliable partner to the US in the Indo-Pacific region and wished that other parts of the world could be more like Taiwan.
With a huge US delegation to commemorate the day, Ryan also said: “Ours is a friendship grounded in history, shared values and our common embrace of democracy, free markets, the rule of law, religious freedom and human rights.”
While the US and China enjoy diplomatic ties, Washington has always focused on strengthening its relationship with Taipei. It was in this context that despite switching diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China, the administration of then-US president Jimmy Carter continued expanding engagements between Washington and Taipei.
Consequently, the US in 1979 crafted the TRA, which says that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities” and the decision about the nature and quantity of defense services that America will provide to Taiwan is to be determined by the president and the US Congress.
While the following US administrations continued to bolster ties with Taiwan, US President Donald Trump has taken a slew of measures to elevate engagements between Washington and Taipei to a new height.
Apart from political overtures that have been observed between the two sides, including stopovers by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in Los Angeles last year and in Hawaii in March, the Trump administration allowed President Tsai to deliver a political speech in the US, which in many ways was a significant shift in US policy toward Taiwan.
Earlier, President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, clearing the way for visits by high-ranking US officials, such as Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Wong (黃之瀚), who visited Taipei and met President Tsai.
In February, five Republican senators wrote a letter asking US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to invite President Tsai to address a joint session of Congress.
More importantly, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy states that the US “will maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our one China policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.”
It was in this context that President Trump signed the travel act.
In June last year, US Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce led a delegation to Taiwan for the dedication of the US$255 million American Institute in Taiwan complex.
The Trump administration has twice notified Congress of major foreign military sales to Taiwan, in June 2017 (seven cases valued at US$1.36 billion) and in September last year (a single case valued at $330 million).
In April last year, the US Department of State issued licenses to allow US firms to market technology to Taiwan for its indigenous submarine program, while in March, President Tsai said her government submitted a request to purchase F-16V jets from the US.
Furthermore, the US Navy conducts regular transits of the Taiwan Strait.
One of the reasons for the elevated ties is that presidents Tsai and Trump share strong feelings over China’s imperial motives.
Thus, while Taiwan occupies a vital place in the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which is largely aimed at containing China’s rising clout in the region, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) assertive posturing against Taiwan has made President Tsai foster strong ties with the US. In fact, the transformed ties with the US could be used by President Tsai as a major foreign policy achievement to secure her re-election.
At the same time, the two sides have shared economic, trade and commerce interests.
While the 40th anniversary of the TRA marked a new high point in the relationship, the time has come for a structural attempt to be made to develop a strong and prospective balance of power against an aspiring imperial power in the region.
Sumit Kumar is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University and a research fellow at Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies in Kolkata, India.
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