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.
Taiwan was the world’s largest purchaser of US defense products and services in 2011. Although US officials do not draw a link between the pivot and arms sales, the pivot is often mentioned during briefings to justify the arms transfers. US officials will not rule out future arms sales.
Critical elements of the
security relationship remain low-profile. For example, Taiwan and the US appear to have long enjoyed a cooperative intelligence-sharing agreement whereby the US National Security Agency and Taiwan’s National Security Bureau monitor China’s military communications from a facility north of Taipei.
Intelligence cooperation might be increasing. According to media reports, Taiwan may share data acquired through its new US$1.3 billion long-range early-warning radar system in Hsinchu with the US military.
In addition to an increase in security ties, Taiwan stands to gain indirectly from the pivot. Taiwan’s military welcomes plans to reallocate US naval forces from a roughly 50 percent split between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to 60 percent stationed in the Pacific. This might benefit Taiwan in an emergency. Moreover, Taiwan’s security will be bolstered by any effort to ramp up missile defenses.
The US will deploy two additional X-band radar systems in the Western Pacific — one in southern Japan and the other in Southeast Asia. Although officials claim the new systems reflect concerns about Pyongyang, they may also track other developments.
In addition to the radar systems, the Pentagon has taken note of China’s “carrier killing” missile systems and pledged that “the US military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments.”
The US military also promises to counter China’s advances in cyberwarfare and “invest in advanced capabilities to defend its networks, operational capability, and resiliency in cyberspace.”
These commitments help ensure that the US can respond to an emergency in the Taiwan Strait and thereby enhance the deterrence to China’s plans for military action.
So Taiwan will benefit from the pivot, but the policy also has challenges. Paradoxical as it may seem, the pivot — an initiative intended to promote stability — might increase the likelihood of conflict in the Western Pacific. Washington is starting to favor Tokyo in its dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. At the same time, the US has unnecessarily challenged Beijing by increasing military deployments and by inking numerous security agreements with China’s neighbors. These moves could provoke Beijing and destabilize the entire region.
It is difficult to predict how the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific will play out. It could conceivably benefit Taiwan, on the other hand, like other Asian governments, Taipei might suffer some collateral damage if present trends continue. The pivot might prove to be yet another problem — not a solution to regional difficulties.
Dennis Hickey is a distinguished professor of political science and director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Missouri State University.