Washington’s words and deeds toward Taiwan have changed to a nuanced approach, especially since the administration of former US president Donald Trump. Unlike the ambiguity of the Taiwan policy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump’s Indo-Pacific vision established a precedent for a stronger US-Taiwan relationship, as it recognized Taipei to be on par with other US allies and partners.
During his presidency, Trump provided robust military support to enhance Taiwan’s defense capabilities, and assist Taipei’s asymmetric warfare strategy in the face of China’s strong push for unification with Taiwan.
US President Joe Biden seems to be following in Trump’s footsteps on making weapons more accessible to Taiwan. In August last year, the US approved a US$750 million sale of 40 Paladin M109A6 self-propelled howitzers and accompanying equipment to Taiwan.
Calling the deal a “basis” for regional stability, Washington sought to hinder the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in its ambition to take any concrete actions in the face of exacerbated tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
Trump insisted that Washington’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy was closely aligned with Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, but avoided seeking a free-trade agreement with Taipei for fear of jeopardizing the US-China trade deal negotiated in late 2020.
By contrast, Biden has sought to shape a “new stage” in the bilateral relationship by issuing new guidelines to “encourage US engagement with Taiwan,” resuming bilateral negotiations under the US’ Trade and Investment Framework Agreement mechanism, and discussing nontraditional collaboration with Taipei.
Biden has even elevated Taiwan’s status to that of US allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, and underscored the importance of preserving peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait in statements following G7 and EU-US summits last year.
Right after a record number of 56 Chinese warplanes conducted incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in early October last year, reports of US special operations units and conventional forces deployed to Taiwan added tension to US-China relations. The presence of US troops showed Washington’s continued actions to enhance the US-Taiwan relationship.
The US’ policy of reassurance to China is declining and being replaced by a deterrence strategy, as Washington aims to counter Beijing’s bold and aggressive behavior in the Indo-Pacific region. Essentially, the US has sought to prepare for any contingencies that China’s assertiveness in the Taiwan Strait might pose.
The US’ stance on Taiwan has gradually shifted with more tangible indications in Washington’s statements and actions, including the incorporation of Taiwan into its Indo-Pacific strategy with consistent commitments toward preserving “interest in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
By employing various types of deterrence strategies, such as sanctions and denials, the US has sought to raise comprehensive awareness among its allies and partners about Washington’s ability to blunt China’s coercive power and curb its behavior.
For example, Trump in 2018 imposed import restrictions on goods from China and ignited a full-scale trade dispute with the world’s second-largest economy.
Biden in August last year launched the US’ largest exercise in the South China Sea since 1981, highlighting the US armed forces’ ability to defend Taiwan and conduct freedom of navigation operations.
The US message is unmistakable: Washington’s supremacy exists, and if necessary, its forces are capable of executing any political mission allowed under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, whether in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.
However, Taiwan has reason to embrace Biden’s approach with caution. On several occasions, Biden has said that he does not endorse Taiwanese independence, while continuing to enhance ties with Taipei.
To make matters worse, the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last year raised the question of whether the US was renouncing its leadership role. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said: “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.”
Some analysts have said that Taiwan is not Afghanistan, and the US’ retreat might have freed up Washington resources so that it could cement its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.
However, the chaos in Kabul raised concern over how the Biden administration might convince its allies and partners of its engagement with the region.
Rising US-China tensions indicate a geostrategic competition that could imperil regional stability. In August last year, Representative to the UK Kelly Hsieh (謝武樵) told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: “Taiwan has become the front line of all democracies to defend against China’s expanding authoritarianism.” Taiwan knows the cost.
Confronting China is not the priority of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Tsai underscored that Taiwan would neither “bend to pressure” nor “turn adventurist” even with international encouragement. In saying so, Tsai underlined that Taiwan would not test Beijing’s “bottom line” by seeking independence, nor would it “act rashly.”
The US is unequivocally the key determinant of Taiwan’s security, and Washington should enhance Taiwan’s strategic confidence by bolstering its alignment with Taipei amid lingering controversies regarding the danger of being a true friend of the superpower.
During US Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Asia in August last year, Washington propagated its motto “America is back,” which was good news for Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations. Washington could promote to ASEAN member states the idea that Taiwan should be effectively integrated into Southeast Asia, which is the nucleus of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. By doing so, the US would further enhance Taiwan’s international standing, while forging a mutual understanding among the parties involved.
The time is ripe for Taiwan, the US and Southeast Asian nations to carve out a tripartite cooperation framework covering nontraditional security, such as global health governance, climate change and regional law enforcement.
The US should play a pivotal role in building bridges between Taiwan and Southeast Asian middle powers — such as Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia — given Washington’s credibility and good relationship with these powers.
Huynh Tam Sang is a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ faculty of international relations, a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and a nonresident WSD-Handa fellow at the Pacific Forum. Pham Do An is a research assistant at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities.
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