History is in the making. East Asia is on the cusp of a great-power transition. Like Japan of the 1920s, China of the 2020s has reached parity in “comprehensive power” with the United States, and views itself as a competitor for geopolitical preeminence in the Indo-Pacific region, if not the globe.
American President Donald Trump is wary of the potential of Beijing’s predatory state mercantilism to hollow-out global prosperity, and capacity of China’s territorial aggressiveness to intimidate neighbors from India, the South China Sea to the Taiwan Strait and Japan. He is unsettled by Beijing’s support for rogue and illiberal states from Russia, North Korea, Iran and Syria, to Venezuela and beyond. He postures with a mercurial personality that keeps friend and foe alike off-balance. But he maneuvers his Administration to counterbalance China with the doctrine of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” that he began to articulate in 2017.
Eight years ago, by contrast, the “No-Drama” Obama Administration announced a vaunted “Pivot to the Pacific” as a symbolic counter to China’s gathering hegemony in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It was a nice idea, hobbled by three fatal flaws: first, “Pivot to the Pacific” was a slogan without a strategy; second, the Obama Administration failed to invest new resources in its Pacific foreign policy; and third, there was no mention of Taiwan.
By 2019, the Trump Administration has addressed these deficiencies. Apart from the classified doctrine that gestated in the National Security Council, the agencies have their own public and classified “FOIP” initiatives.
On June 1, 2019, the Pentagon’s unclassified Indo-Pacific Strategy Report was published, and to my utter amazement, it mentioned “Taiwan” thirty times, and devoted an entire page (page 31) to Taiwan, its “hard-won democracy,” the nature of China’s threat, and the magnitude of the US-Taiwan partnership. Specifically, the paper postulates “the United States has a vital interest in upholding the rules-based international order, which includes a strong, prosperous, and democratic Taiwan.”
Some might dismiss the Trump Doctrine of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” as a mere reboot of Obama’s toothless “Pivot.” Yet, unlike the “Pivot,” President Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy is backed by new maritime assets and unprecedented moves to integrate Taiwan into the FOIP structure. The Pentagon has indeed enhanced its security cooperation with Taiwan since the arrival of Assistant Secretary Randall Schriver last year. The details of that relationship are, of course, not for publication, and on the Taoist principle that “those who know, don’t say; those who say, don’t know,” (知者不言，言者不知), alas, I can say no more.
Washington’s diplomatic initiatives are more public. Last month, in this column, I pointed to serious and persistent moves by the US State Department to persuade Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners to maintain their relations with Taipei. Last year, when the Trump Administration recalled three US ambassadors from Central America to voice dismay about severing ties with Taipei, I had thought the State Department was prompted by China’s aggressive economic diplomacy in the region, not so much by Taiwan’s plight. But the Administration’s persistent rhetorical support for Taiwan since then, by Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, the Pentagon, and the unprecedented inclusion of Taiwan in the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific strategy document of a few weeks ago, are solid evidence that Taiwan now holds a new and significant position in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
Last month, I commented on the Solomon Islands’ confused election campaign debates in April on breaking with Taipei and recognizing Beijing. The sitting prime minister, who campaigned on a platform to reexamine ties with Taipei, lost to his predecessor as PM, who resigned in 2017 amid allegations he had accepted political kickbacks from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.
The prospect of Beijing gaining another client state in the Pacific Islands was too much for either Washington or Canberra. American deputy assistant secretary of state Patrick Murphy went on record forcefully and repeatedly to encourage the Solomon Islands to “maintain the status quo” with Taiwan. Last month, Australia’s newly reelected Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in the Solomon Islands capital of Honiara, and raised Taiwan directly with Solomon foreign minister Jeremiah Manele. A decision is advertised for September at the conclusion of a 100-day “review” process.
On Friday, July 5, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo issued a rather unusual national day greeting to the Solomon Islands. Friendly, and warm, filled with hope for a fruitful US-Solomons partnership, Mr. Pompeo mentioned other countries by name — unusual for a national day greeting. He said: “We welcome [the Solomon Islands’] commitment to advancing our shared vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region with other democracies in the Pacific region including Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Japan.”
Five days later, July 10, was Kiribati’s national day. Likewise, in Secretary Pompeo’s national day greeting to the people of the Republic of Kiribati, he repeated: “We welcome your commitment to advancing our shared vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region with other democracies in the Pacific region including Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Japan.”
This is new. Ten weeks ago, in the State Department’s April 29 national day greeting to the Marshall Islanders, no mention of “Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Japan” was made.
The Trump Administration’s new protocol of mentioning “Taiwan” in America’s national day greetings to Pacific Island nations that recognize Taiwan is an unmistakable sign that Taiwan is the State Department’s top concern in preserving a Pacific Ocean that is “Free and open” from Chinese hegemony. For too long, the United States had neglected the Pacific Islands, apparently judging that Australia and New Zealand, as reliable security allies in the vast Pacific Region, were more suited to handle ANZUS alliance interests there. But over the past two decades, both Canberra and Wellington had proven inattentive to China’s massive infiltration of the Pacific islands. Systematically, Beijing has moved, island by island, in the Pacific to entangle local economies and gain political and strategic preeminence. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s electoral victory in May 2019 against the opposition Labor Party’s pro-Beijing inclinations was a sign that Canberra, and to a certain extent, the Australian electorate, take seriously China’s burgeoning footprint in the Pacific. Just as clear is the State Department’s new reluctance to entrust Canberra with sole guardianship of America’s strategic interests in the Pacific.
Six years ago, writing in Peter Chow’s (周鉅原) book The US Strategic Pivot to Asia and Cross-Strait Relations, I predicted pessimistically that “future historians will judge China’s twenty-first century ‘Pacific Preeminence’ to have been assured by Beijing’s well-planned, deft and relentless diplomatic isolation of Taiwan and its steady alienation of Taiwan from America’s security network over the preceding half-century.” But that was before the March 2014 “Sunflower” movement, the collapse of the “Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement” (ECFA), the defeat of the cross-strait “Trade in Services Agreement,” and the 2016 elections of Presidents Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and Donald Trump. Happily, breaking Taiwan’s “diplomatic isolation” is now a priority of US diplomacy.
Here, in mid-2019, I am inclined to be optimistic about Taiwan’s future, and America’s. It truly is the first time since the 1980s that both Taiwan and the United States share a strategic vision for the future and the determination to see it through. My concern is that the inconstancy of past governments and administrations, both in Taiwan and the US, have polarized their electorates. And there are exogenous actors — China and Russia, to name a few — who play on the openness of free elections to puzzle the will of voters and deprive them of strategic continuity. But democracies are funny things. They often surprise you by voting for their country’s future rather than parochial advantage.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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