Strengthening US-Taiwan Relations Without a Military Commitment

Strengthening US-Taiwan Relations Without a Military Commitment
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

A bilateral trade agreement, government exchanges, and changing the name of Taipei Economic and Cultural Office are pro-Taiwan measures the U.S. should consider.

There’s no doubt that United States -Taiwan cooperation has increased dramatically over the past few months. But the U.S. has yet to account for China’s hostile behavior in its policy toward Taiwan. In the face of a China with clear intentions to command the regional order, it may be time for the U.S. to step up its support for Taiwan.

As suggested in a recent testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the U.S. is wary of how China’s increasing threat is affecting Taiwan. Experts like Richard Haas have suggested U.S. strategic clarity towards Taiwan, and some have urged the U.S. to abolish the “One China Policy” altogether. Such policies are likely unfeasible, but they do have a point. The U.S. has to demonstrate, with concrete action, that it sees Taiwan’s security as something vital to American interests.

Some may wonder why the U.S. should care about a small Asian island. But Taiwan is not as small as imagined — it’s the 11th largest trade partner to the United States. The country also holds a critical strategic position in East Asia. It sits at the very center of the so-called First Island Chain, the first line of defense against Chinese expansion into the Pacific. Should China annex Taiwan, it will pose direct threats to South Korea and Japan.

The fall of Taiwan to Chinese rule would not just mark the loss of a democracy to an authoritarian political system, but a blow against a rules-based international order.

If a threat to Taiwan’s peace and security jeopardizes American interests, the U.S. would have a reason to send strong deterrence signals to Beijing through non-military means. The importance of non-military ties like trade and exchange programs lies in part in denying China a casus belli. It would also allow the U.S. to demonstrate a clear interest in Taiwan’s peace and security without pursuing a unilateral policy change from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity. 

To begin, initiating a bilateral trade agreement (BTA) with Taiwan is arguably the most important next step in furthering U.S.-Taiwan relations. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has shown goodwill by lifting bans on U.S. pork and beef imports, which had been the greatest hurdle to trade talks. Recently, 50 senators have also urged to advance BTA talks with Taiwan. By establishing a BTA, the U.S. and Taiwan would be able to work on their joint goals of restructuring global supply chains, establishing "clean" 5G data networks, and creating more jobs in the post-pandemic era.

The U.S. could also consider more frequent governmental exchanges with Taiwan. For instance, the Taiwan Fellowship Act, if passed, will allow 10 U.S. federal government employees to receive Mandarin-language training and work with their Taiwanese counterparts in Taiwan for two years. This proposal was inspired by the successful Mansfield Fellowship Program between the U.S. and Japan. Since high-level exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan are often limited, this kind of fellowship program is conducive to strengthening mutual understanding between the two countries. The U.S. would also be able to train the next generation of Asia experts.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
President Tsai Ing-wen with Health Minister Chen Shih-chung

Finally, the U.S. could assist in changing the name of the de facto Taiwanese embassy: from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) to the Taiwan Representative Office. Considering that the de facto American embassy in Taiwan is called the American Institute in Taiwan rather than the Washington Institute in Taiwan, the Taiwan equivalent ought to be called the TRO. The U.S. Congress’s China Task Force (consisting of Republicans only) is considering the name change, but it is essential that this proposal receives bipartisan support. Not only would this name change be a better reflection of the purpose of the office, but it would also bring dignity to Taiwanese Americans.

With a power competition underway in the Indo-Pacific, American support for Taiwan must persist. More importantly, the U.S. strategy towards Taiwan must remain consistent between administrations. Even without extending its military commitment, the U.S. can still deter increasing Chinese threats to Taiwan by making it obvious that Taiwan’s security is vital to American interests. This message must be clear regardless of the results of the next presidential election.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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