US Defense Act Angers China, Reaffirms Status Quo for Taiwan

US Defense Act Angers China, Reaffirms Status Quo for Taiwan
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

The Taiwan provisions in the annual United States defense act change little, but there may be substance beneath the symbolism which further deepens US-Taiwan military ties.

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Despite the Communist Party of China's best efforts to erase Taiwan from the global stage, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the country she governs have featured remarkably frequently in global news headlines this week.

Stopping over in the United States on her way to Paraguay and Belize, Tsai gave a widely reported speech in Los Angeles, but it was her visit to 85C Bakery Café location and the pictures that subsequently emerged that caused a real firestorm – prompting Chinese web users and a Global Times editorial to demand the company recognize the so-called 1992 Consensus.

Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) does not recognize the existence of the consensus, which has been at the heart of cross-Strait tensions since her inauguration in May 2016.

Borne out of an "unofficial" meeting between representatives of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (ROC) governments in 1992, the agreement cements the "One China principle": both sides concur that there is only one "China," encompassing both China and Taiwan, but agree to disagree on what this means. The PRC and Taiwan's opposition Kuomintang (KMT) insist that the 1992 Consensus is immovable, but Tsai has steadfastly refused to affirm it, a position Beijing conflates with supporting independence.

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Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen Facebook
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Aug. 13, 2018.

China's willingness to take out its grievances over this impasse on international airlines and Taiwanese café chains stems from its newfound resolve to double down on existing tactics and "bully, demean, and diminish Taiwan wherever and whenever possible," according to Lauren Dickey, a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore.

The latest victim of that vitriolic energy is 85C operator Gourmet Master, which saw its stock value plummet Thursday as a result of pressure for a boycott of its outlets in China, upon which it relies for more than 60 percent of its revenue.

But away from Tsai's photo opportunities and speeches, on the other side of the United States, a potentially more significant development in the trilateral relationship was taking place in New York, where U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the 2019 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

China was unsurprisingly irked by the NDAA rollout, particularly as it contains a provision requiring the U.S. to assess Taiwan's military forces within the next year, and reaffirms the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the Six Assurances.

The passage of the NDAA closely followed Tsai announcing Taiwan's proposed 2019 defense budget, which features NT$346 billion (US$11.7 billion) in defense spending, an increase of 5.6 percent (NT$18 billion) on the previous year, along with a pledge to jumpstart the development of indigenous weapon production.

Tsai's assertive posture in the crosswinds of U.S.-China bluster won favorable reviews from Taiwanese media. However, her first of two U.S. stopovers on the trip – she is also scheduled to pass through Houston on Aug. 20 – left unanswered familiar questions about Taiwan's actual defense readiness.

Dickey is currently engaged in research on China's strategy towards Taiwan under President Xi Jinping. The News Lens spoke to her about heated cross-Strait tensions, the wisdom of Taiwan's indigenous defense plans, and the reliability of the island's largest unofficial ally, the United States.

Symbols and substance

After President Trump signed the NDAA, English-language media in Taiwan showered his administration with flattering headlines, one day before before the U.S. media joined forces to condemn its attacks on domestic free press.

Despite its now famous volatility in adhering to existing defense agreements, the Trump administration has shown no indication of withdrawing its tacit support of Taiwan. But Dickey says she felt Taiwan's media "get[s] so swept up in symbolism that they forget the substance."

The NDAA contains two key provisions, one of which entrenches the TRA, passed in 1979 after the U.S. broke formal relations with the ROC, as definitive in its support of the island. The other, Section 1257, requires the U.S. Secretary of Defense to assess Taiwan's military forces within the next year.

Section 1257 contains a notable provision to expand joint training by the U.S. Armed Forces with Taiwan's military, which could precipitate U.S. participation in Taiwan's annual Han Kuang military exercises.

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Photo Credit: 楊之瑜/關鍵評論網
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen gives a speech at the opening of the American Institute in Taiwan complex on June 12, 2018.

Dickey says that, while the provisions reiterate past U.S. policy - U.S. evaluation of Taiwan's military readiness, for instance, is no new phenomenon – they are substantive and "carefully thought out." Even the proposal to station U.S. Marines at the new American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) complex is not novel: the former AIT, she says, employed security guards "who look an awful lot like Marines in civilian clothes."

Crucially, the NDAA lays out no clear consequences should the U.S. fail to follow through on Taiwan-related stipulations. But the notoriously brusque Trump administration appears to have taken a calculated approach towards Taiwan ever since that infamous phone call between Tsai and Trump in December 2016.

China's stubborn resolve

China badgering a café into affirming the 1992 Consensus seems absurd at face value, but it's part of a heatwave of pressure put on international businesses and organizations to exclude Taiwan from the global community. Dickey says her research shows that while China's tactics aren't new, its resolve is unprecedented.

"There's this greater sense of urgency under Xi Jinping to do something about China's remaining sovereignty and territorial disputes," she said, mentioning Taiwan along with Hong Kong and Tibet, as well as Xinjiang and the South China Sea.

This urgency creates "a more problematic, potentially volatile situation," Dickey adds. China's Taiwan-facing strategies "are not getting Xi much closer to reunification ... [so] there's a greater potential for miscalculation, a greater willingness to take risks."

China's willingness to take out its grievances over this impasse on international airlines and Taiwanese café chains stems from its newfound resolve to double down on existing tactics and 'bully, demean, and diminish Taiwan wherever and whenever possible.'

China and the U.S. have traded potential provocations: China with its pressure on international organizations to exclude Taiwan and demands on foreign airlines, hotel chains, and retailers to refer to Taiwan as a part of China; the U.S. with the March passage of the Taiwan Travel Act.

China's commitment to the strategy, says Dickey, gives insight into its long-term plans. Its tactics are no different, she says, but "what has changed is that every Chinese diplomat has taken on this mission of squeezing Taiwan whenever and wherever possible."

"The sense of having a strong, unified China is so clear, so strong in the minds of Chinese leadership," says Dickey. "It's hard to see them backing off of that, because doing so would come with its own set of political costs and domestic fallout."

Indigenous defense and looking beyond the US

Taiwan's proposed 2019 defense budget raises defense spending to 2.16 percent of Taiwan's GDP. This falls short of the campaign promise of 3 percent of GDP made by Tsai, but nevertheless, it is a "hugely symbolic step to show that Tsai and the DPP are committed to Taiwan's defense," says Dickey. "An increase is an increase."

However, she is skeptical of the pragmatism of dedicating more of those funds to developing indigenous weaponry. Upgrading Taiwan's World War II era submarines, for example, does not fulfill "an immediate, urgent need that would be used on day one of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait," she says. "They're much more of a symbolic deterrent than a defensive platform for use in a major conflict in the Taiwan Strait."

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen boards the Hai Lung-class submarine in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Dickey has vouched for Taiwan to renew abandoned defense ties with countries besides the U.S., and she believes Taiwan can attempt to work around Chinese pressure. The government here can diversify its supply chain partners when purchasing military equipment, she says, and should consider hiring retired military engineers to consult on advanced weaponry like fighters and submarines – informal approaches that engage only the private sector.

Tsai said last week that 21.3 percent of 2019's NT$346 billion defense budget will be spent on indigenous defense. However, the particulars remain unknown, and whether Taiwan can boost its indigenous weapons development while simultaneously transitioning to an all-volunteer military force remains to be seen.

Aside from reaching out to other states, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) can also internally diversify by reconceptualizing its defense strategy. Dickey notes that there are proponents "buried in the caverns of the MND" of asymmetric warfare and creative defense, but "those voices oftentimes may not make it far outside of the MND."

Notably, one provision of NDAA Section 1257 calls for the U.S. to support arms sales to Taiwan, "particularly for developing asymmetric warfare capabilities," or thse that focus on improving Taiwan's ability to repel China's larger and better equipped invasion forces.

But while the U.S. has reiterated its nominal support of Taiwan, it remains to be seen whether this week's symbolic wins hint towards an actual stronger relationship – or one that would survive any sudden about-face in China policy by the Trump administration.

"Things are changing really quickly in the United States," says Dickey. "Diplomacy happens on Twitter a lot more than in formal gatherings these days. I think that it's good to have a diversity of options in this day and age."

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Read Next: Taiwan’s Search for Security Partners: Looking Beyond Washington

Editor: David Green

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