Mon, Sep 16, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Ian Easton On Taiwan: Why the US defends Taiwan

For many Asia-watchers, one of the biggest surprises of Donald Trump’s last two years and eight months in high office has been that he hasn’t sold Taiwan out in return for China’s help on North Korea, a trade deal, or just because it would make Xi Jinping (習近平) happy. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The Trump White House has arguably done more to help ensure Taiwan’s continued freedom and independence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) than any administration in well over 40 years.

Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan cut deals with Beijing at the expense of Taipei. The result was the three US-PRC communiques. To their credit, George W. Bush and Barack Obama avoided the pitfall of signing a fourth communique. However, both presidents were responsible for arms sales freezes and sought to curry favor with China by keeping Taiwan at a distance.

There were concerns that President Trump might follow in his predecessors’ footsteps, or worse. He has a track record of being openly critical of democratic allies and skeptical of burdensome defense commitments. He’s prone to ignore Congress, the intelligence community, and even his own foreign policy advisors. He’s famous for his unpredictable and ruthless dealmaking, and he has demonstrated a high degree of tolerance for dictators like Chairman Xi. Indeed, at one point, Trump reportedly challenged his advisors to tell him why the US should defend Taiwan.

It is not clear what the president’s advisors told him. What is clear is that Trump subsequently signed the landmark Taiwan Travel Act, sent Marines to guard the AIT (the de facto American Embassy in Taipei), and personally approved a historic sale of new F-16 jet fighters to the island. By all accounts, US-Taiwan relations have never been better than they are now, and they are likely to get better still in the years ahead. This has all happened despite a massive Chinese influence and intimidation campaign.

So, why does the United States government, even in one of its most idiosyncratic leadership moments, continue to consider Taiwan’s future worth fighting for?

At this point, we can only guess what President Trump really thinks about Taiwan. He has yet to address the public on this issue. But if actions speak louder than words (and tweets), then he must see tremendous value in this island democracy.

What follows are six reasons why any American president should think defending Taiwan is in the best interest of the United States.

First, American lives are at stake. There are 79,000 US citizens living in Taiwan (plus 72,000 in China and 85,000 in Hong Kong). Chinese war plans for Taiwan are highly aggressive. They emphasize deception and rapid escalation. As a result, large numbers of American civilians could find themselves unable to evacuate the cross-Strait area in the event of a conflict. Keeping them safe would require US military intervention.

Second, US economic well-being depends on it. According to the Census Bureau’s July 2019 data, Taiwan is currently America’s 10th largest trading partner (ahead of Italy, Vietnam, and Brazil). Taiwan punches above its weight in many spheres of activity. Trade is no exception. This high tech island is critical to the supply chains that power the US economy. Keeping US technology companies like Apple, IBM, and Google in business means keeping Taiwan from being blockaded, bombed, and overrun.

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