OPINION: Time for Trump to Start a New Chapter of US-Taiwan Relations

OPINION: Time for Trump to Start a New Chapter of US-Taiwan Relations
Credit: Reuters / TPG
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The Trump administration's disregard for the rules-based world order doesn't mesh with its stated Indo-Pacific strategy. Here's how to fix that to the benefit of Taiwan.

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The United States was the crux of the economic development and political security system on which the world has relied for more than 70 years. The global economic architecture, which the United States and its allies put in place after World War II, is now absent American leadership. President Donald Trump and his team have trashed it.

Trump’s trade war with China and his trade actions against others, including Europe, Canada and Japan, show utter disrespect for the world’s core set of rules. This system is the international system of rules, whatever its weaknesses, on which the Indo-Pacific region’s political security also vitally depends. The wreckage of Trump’s approach to foreign policy continues to pile up across the Taiwan Strait, and around the world.

As Chinese economic and political ties grow across the Strait, an increasingly stagnant U.S. policy towards the Indo-Pacific threatens to undermine both American and Taiwanese interests. The Trump administration has the opportunity to revamp this state of affairs before it is too late. The United States must consistently grow its relationship with Taiwan. Perhaps even more ambitiously, Washington must pursue every available avenue of cooperation with Taipei allowable under U.S. law. Indeed, there is not actually much activity that U.S. law disallows when it comes to U.S.-Taiwan cooperation.

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Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office
Members of the US Congress, such as Senator Ted Cruz (L), have taken the lead in securing facetime with Taiwanese leaders.

Taiwan is a vital democratic partner of the United States. Washington should deepen bilateral security, economic, and cultural relations with Taipei, while also sending a message that Beijing's aggressive cross-Strait behavior will not be tolerated. Trump's strategy should be crafted with the intent to deepen and expand United States-Taiwan relations, in accord with the longstanding, comprehensive, strategic, and values-based relationship between the two.

The strategy will need to consider the following priorities:

1. Taiwan is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the U.S.-China relationship, which also include the ongoing trade war, U.S. sanctions, and China’s increasingly muscular military posture in the South China Sea, where the United States also conducts freedom of navigation patrols. The United States must continue to enhance the strategic relationship with Taiwan against an increasingly aggressive China. Taiwan is an important democratic partner whose security is critical to advancing America's national security interests in the Indo-Pacific.

2. A more normal relationship with Taiwan has both symbolic and substantial value. Treating Taiwan as a normal diplomatic partner underscores American commitment to the island’s continuing de facto independence and can help to dispel doubts in Beijing that Washington would actually go to Taipei’s aide in the event of a crisis. As things stand, strategic ambiguity may be more ambiguous than Washington currently intends.

3. Loosening of the State Department’s Taiwan guidelines would allow for regular, high-level discussions between Taiwan and American national security officials. (This must go beyond the current Taiwan Travel Act, which has yet to provide truly significant high-level exchanges between Taiwan and U.S. executive officials.) American leaders would, moreover, develop a deeper understanding of how Taiwan’s leaders might react in the event of a crisis, and vice versa, thus making for better crisis management. Finally, direct engagement on contingency planning at the highest levels of government would enhance confidence in between Washington, Taipei and Beijing – that those plans would be executed in the event of an emergency.

4. The United States should not let precedent inhibit its interactions with Taiwan. Rather, it can and should move deliberately, but consistently, towards a more normal relationship with Taiwan. There is much that Washington can do within the framework of the “one China” policy, but there is no need to do it all at once. Washington should not be overly sympathetic to Chinese claims of “hurt feelings,” but avoiding surprises is important for the maintenance of a relatively stable, predictable U.S.-China relationship.

5. Members of both parties can be expected to continue exploring ways to deepen bilateral relations during the remainder of the Trump administration’s first term. Look for members of the armed services committees to continue encouraging closer defense and military-to-military ties. Related, it would be relatively non-controversial, but helpful, for the foreign affairs committees to advance legislation requiring the Secretary of State to respond to letters of request for arms sales within a defined time limit.

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Credit: US Navy / Handout
It's time for the US to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to its Indo-Pacific strategy.

6. Enhancing U.S. trade and commercial ties with Taiwan through arrangements that benefit both the United States and Taiwan. The bipartisanship of members of Congress is remarkably friendly to Taiwan, but it is the White House that has continued to drive progress in the relationship. Washington wants America's economic partners in the Indo-Pacific region to thrive, prosper, and control their own destinies. A trade agreement could be accomplished through Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) negotiations by both sides. Importantly, Congressional advocacy for a free trade agreement is possible, too, though it will, of course, be up to the executive branch to negotiate any such deal.

7. Trump needs to go all-in on the Indo-Pacific. Doing so would benefit him in a number of ways. Firstly, it is a means to stymie China, a country that Trump frequently attacked on the campaign trail, without deteriorating the security situations in either the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. Secondly, substantial engagement with Indo-Pacific will promote a number of friendly democratic regimes, which could prove useful partners and allies, as China becomes a global player. Finally, the risk of terrorism will be reduced as U.S. engagement helps Indo-Pacific states develop more effective security sectors.

To be sure, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both the House and Senate deserves credit for advancing U.S.-Taiwan ties over the last two years. It is the Trump administration, however, that remains at the forefront of an ongoing effort to shape a more normal bilateral relationship. Trump's leadership will be vital if the relationship is to continue flourishing in the years ahead. The main point: The White House remains a bastion of support for U.S.-Taiwan relations and is providing important leadership in shaping that relationship for a new era.

So in conclusion: Trump needs to start a new chapter of U.S.-Taiwan relations that offers Taiwanese and Americans alike a brighter future. Taiwan should be a partner in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and it is essential that the U.S. continue to strengthen its bilateral relationship with Taiwan. The best solution to avert a crisis is for Washington, particularly the Trump administration, to spell out his strategy for Taiwan and further to help Taipei and Beijing to reach a political rapprochement to avert a crisis, before it is too late.

Read Next: An Open Letter to President Trump: Why Taiwan Should Matter to the US

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@TheNewsLens)

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