Is 2019 the Breakthrough Year for U.S.-Taiwan Relations?

Is 2019 the Breakthrough Year for U.S.-Taiwan Relations?
Credit: Shutterstock/ TPG Images
What you need to know

After forty years of the Taiwan Relations Act, as both parties are presented with an increasingly aggressive China, Milo Hsieh argues it's time for a new chapter in relations between the U.S. and Taiwan.

Listen
powered by Cyberon

In 2019 the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which governs U.S. commitment to Taiwan, hits its forty-year anniversary. Established in 1979 in the aftermath of U.S. recognition of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the TRA re-established U.S. relations with the people of Taiwan after ceasing to recognize the government of the Republic of China, which had ruled Taiwan since 1949 and claimed to be the sole legitimate government representing China.

Many in the U.S. were excited by the opportunity brought on by connecting with China after President Richard Nixon made a surprise visit in 1972 — also the year that the PRC replaced Generalissimo Chiang's (蔣介石) representatives in the U.N. as a permanent member of the security council. Under Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), China's economy was reformed and opened up to the outside for investment. For decades after the reform, China's economy grew significantly. After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, its export boosted significantly, allowing it to slowly rise to the position of a formidable power in East Asia.

However, as we reach toward the end of the 21st century's second decade, China's rise — along with its increasingly authoritarian governing structure under Xi Jinping (習近平) — now presents a greater threat to U.S. interest in the Indo-Pacific region. While many were optimistic about China potentially democratizing, the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989 dashed hopes for democratization despite countries such as South Korea and Taiwan democratizing. Furthermore, the recent abolition of term limit for China's president under Xi Jinping, commonly seen as the appointment of himself as a dictator for life, is seen as a backslide in China's democratic development.

AP_18265750975585
Credit: AP/ TPG Images
Demonstrators march across 42nd street during a rally and march to protest Taiwan's continued exclusion from the UN and the international community, in New York, Sept. 22, 2018.

U.S. President Donald Trump began taking a harder stance on China as of 2018. China has become increasingly aggressive toward U.S. allies and increasingly assertive toward the U.S. The militarization of the South China Sea impeded upon of the interest of Southeast Asian claimants. Its dismissal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling of the Philippines V China case, which awarded the islands to Philippines — as well as its continued exclusion of Taiwan from U.N. organizations and especially the World Health Organization — showed how China was willing to advance its interests at the expense of its democratic neighbors.

Perhaps in realization that U.S. interests no longer align as much with China, the U.S. started to cooperate with Taiwan. Although Taiwan was once considered an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" of the U.S., the official defense commitment ended when the U.S. switched recognition and signed the Taiwan Relations Act. After a 39 year hiatus in passing any legislation in the U.S. Congress on Taiwan related issues, in 2018 both the Taiwan Travel Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act were passed and signed into law. The acts encouraged more high-level contact between Taiwan and the U.S. and reiterated U.S. security interests in Taiwan.

Meanwhile on trade and economy, China's exploitation of the asymmetry of openness between the two economies became increasingly obvious. Under Xi Jinping, doctrines such as the One Belt One Road, Made in China 2025, and the vision for a Red Supply Chain began to be seen as threats to regional stability as China attempted to project its power abroad. The fact that Chinese companies were taking a foothold in building infrastructures and consumer electronics began to be considered worrisome as the line between civilian and military technologies blurred in China. The U.S. is worried that China intends to exploit its reliance on Chinese-made products to collect information or otherwise compromise U.S. national security. Huawei became a prime example of this concern when it was placed on the U.S. Department of Commerce's entity list.

AP_18123204537344
Credit: AP/ TPG Images
A robot assistant receptionist is seen at the booth of a Chinese automaker during the China Auto 2018 show in Beijing, China. Under President Xi Jinping, a program known as "Made in China 2025" aims to make China a tech superpower by advancing development of industries that in addition to semiconductors includes artificial intelligence, pharmaceuticals and electric vehicles, April 26, 2018.

Under such conditions, Taiwan, now a "beacon of democracy" in East Asia according to its President Tsai Ing-wen, stands as a viable alternative to China. Taiwan has had acquired decades of expertise in producing electronic products and parts after the "Taiwan Miracle" in which tech manufacturing took flight between the 1970s and 1990s. Additionally, Taiwan's democracy is now a more obvious strength as cybersecurity issues in China combined with its authoritarian structure present many challenges.

New 21st century technologies and practices — data hosting and collection, cellular infrastructures, expanded use of digital equipment — all would become vulnerabilities if firms are to be located in a country where the government attempts to exert full control through any means possible. Whereas democracies have put emphasis on individual rights and rights to privacy, authoritarian regimes such as China have demonstrated their willingness to violate these universal rights in order to strengthen control.

Taiwan's status in 2019 now shifts from an island of ambiguous political status to one which the U.S. would like to see empowered. In 2019, the Taiwan Relations Act on its fortieth anniversary just happens to give a reason for Taiwanese organizations and think tanks to loudly voice Taiwan's narrative. In Washington D.C. and elsewhere, Taiwan's story, which has long been washed away by their much louder Chinese counterparts, is seeing a revival as it makes progress in areas such as legalizing same-sex marriage.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, previously mostly frozen during the Obama and Bush years, saw a revival when activities on the sale of F-16Vs resumed in March 2019. A training program for Taiwanese fighter pilots is also likely to continue. Despite protests by China, U.S. warships have also begun to cross the Taiwan Strait much more regularly and frequently. This suggests that the U.S. is actively shifting its stance toward Taiwan and China, taking substantive actions on top of its symbolic support.

U.S. President Donald Trump began taking a harder stance on China as of 2018, following China becoming increasingly aggressive toward U.S. allies and increasingly assertive toward the U.S. The militarization of the South China Sea impeded upon of the interests of Southeast Asian claimants. China's dismissal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling of the Philippines V China case, which awarded the islands to Philippines — as well as its continued exclusion of Taiwan from U.N. organizations and especially the World Health Organization — showed how China was willing to advance its interest at the expense of its democratic neighbors.

AP_18163208759621
Credit: AP/ TPG Images
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Culture Affairs Marie Royce, right, delivers a speech during the dedication ceremony of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) new office complex in Taipei, June 12, 2018.

In Taipei, the U.S. has moved the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), its de-facto embassy, from the worn-down building it occupied in the Xinyi district to a much larger purpose-built compound in Neihu. In Washington, Taiwan's Coordination Council for North American Affairs has been renamed as the Taiwan Council for U.S. Affairs.

Along with the announcement of renaming the diplomatic command responsible for U.S.-Taiwan Relations, it was announced on May 25 that the secretary-general of Taiwan's National Security Council, David Lee, met with John Bolton, his U.S. counterpart. This is a significant breakthrough in U.S.-Taiwan relations as it was previously taboo for high-ranking military staff to visit the Washington D.C. Area.

As the Taiwan Relations Act hits its anniversary in the midst of a U.S.-China conflict, Taiwan is now an ever-important friend for the U.S. and a shining example of democracy's success in East Asia. With both symbolic and substantive ties forged actively between the two sides, Taiwan may have an opportunity to change its status from a largely unrecognized country that has been abandoned by the international community to become a full member, with its value enshrined by the rest of the democratic world.

It is however important to also note that the advancing U.S.-Taiwan relations may be contingent on another four years of President Tsai. Though she has recently emerged victorious from the divisive DPP primary, she will still be facing a challenging election at home against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), many of whose candidates are campaigning on economic integration with China. At the end of the day, for Tsai to succeed and push onto another chapter of the U.S.-Taiwan relations, the potential benefits brought on by the improved relations and increased recognition must be seen and felt by those at home.

Read next: President Tsai Calls for US Support of Taiwan in Address to Heritage Foundation

- Milo Hsieh studies international relations at American University. He is an intern at Project 2049 Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank focused on East Asia security and affairs in China and Taiwan.

Editor: Cat Thomas (@TheNewsLens)

Looking for More?
More『Opinion』Articles More『Politics』Articles More『Milo Hsieh』Articles
Loader