Just before Christmas, US President Donald Trump’s administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS), a congressionally mandated document required under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act — that outlines the US government’s appraisal of its national security interests, the global security environment, challenges to US interests and policies and tools for securing such interests.
For Taiwan, three aspects are important: First, the specific mention of Taiwan in the document and the reference to the specific commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Second, the characterization of China as a challenge to US power, which is forcing the US to rethink the policies of the past two decades. Third, the outline of the new Indo-Pacific policy as the new framework for US policies toward the region.
On the first point: The NSS for the first time specifically refers to Taiwan and states: “We 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.”
The reference to “our ‘one China’” policy is a clear statement that the US does not accept the “one China” principle touted by Beijing, while the emphasis on the US commitments under the TRA (to provide for Taiwan’s defense needs and deter coercion) are an unambiguous signal that the US would come to Taiwan’s defense if China decides to attack or coerce Taiwan.
On the second point: The NSS describes China as “challenging American power, influence and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”
According to the report, this strategic competition would “require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”
Thus, while previous US administrations emphasized engagement and cooperation, the Trump administration is emphasizing that China’s expansionist moves and mercantilism are proving a threat not only to US interests, but also to peace and stability in the region.
Based on this, one could thus expect a firmer US pushback against China’s expansionism
On the third point: The NSS is the first attempt by the US administration to give substance to the concept of the Indo-Pacific strategy, first mentioned by Trump in a speech to the APEC Forum in Da Nang, Vietnam, in November last year.
The Indo-Pacific strategy has been referred to as a diamond-shaped strategy, encompassing Japan in the north, the US in the east, India in the west and Australia in the south.
The NSS specifically states that: “We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India,” but also mentions ASEAN and APEC as “centerpieces of the Indo-Pacific’s regional architecture and platforms for promoting an order based on freedom.”
For Taiwan, it is important to realize that it is at the heart of this Indo-Pacific diamond and is therefore of strategic importance.
It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will implement its NSS and its new Indo-Pacific strategy.
However, it is clear that for Taiwan it creates opportunities to strengthen its international position and opens the door for fresh thinking, new policies and for the nation to build alliances that help induce China to accommodate a free and democratic Taiwan.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat and the former editor of Taiwan Communique. He teaches “History of Taiwan” at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia
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