Tillerson Reaffirms Support for Taiwan, Likens South China Sea to Crimea

Tillerson Reaffirms Support for Taiwan, Likens South China Sea to Crimea
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

‘I think it is important that Taiwan knows we are going to live up to the commitments under the Relations Act and Six Issues Accord,’ Tillerson said.

The incoming United States Secretary of State has signaled a reaffirmation of U.S. support for Taiwan and compared China’s military build-up in the South China Sea to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination for Secretary of State, on Jan. 11 testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S.

The hearing took place hours after Taiwan scrambled jets as China’s sole aircraft carrier sailed near Taiwan's territorial water on its return from exercises in the South China Sea.

During the hearing, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner asked the former ExxonMobil chief executive what the position on Taiwan and the one-China policy would be under the new administration.

Tillerson noted the “important commitments” made to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) the Six Assurances Accord and said the U.S. should express a “reaffirmation” of those.

“I think it is important that Taiwan knows we are going to live up to the commitments under the Relations Act and Six Issues Accord,” he said. “That in of itself is a message.”

Tillerson said the action was part of a broader “whole of China” approach the U.S. would take in the region.

The TRA, which dates back to 1979 after the U.S. established diplomatic ties with Beijing, enables continued non-official ties between Washington and Taipei including the authorization of the American Institute in Taiwan. The Six Assurances includes the promise the U.S. will not set a date for ceasing arms sales to Taiwan and it will not formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Writing about the TRA in 2009, the former head of American Institute in Taiwan Richard Bush noted that the TRA’s security-commitment “falls short of a defense treaty.”

“On the positive side, whereas the former defense treaty spoke only of armed attack as a pre-requisite for American defense of Taiwan, the TRA expands the number of contingencies that might trigger a U.S. response,” Bush said. “On the other hand, most of the TRA language is rendered as statements of policy rather than law, and so lacks binding force.”

Bush noted that the TRA only states a U.S. policy of having the capacity to resist coercion against Taiwan, not an explicit commitment to use those capabilities.

“The only thing that a U.S. administration must do in a crisis is report to Congress. The bias of the old treaty, therefore, was on the side of action; that of the TRA is less clear-cut.”

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Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
U.S. military forces aboard Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) maneuver on the shore of San Antonio, Zambales during the annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) war games with Filipino soldiers in northern Philippines April 21, 2015.

South China Sea claims

The incoming Trump administration late last year sent shockwaves through foreign policy community after a phone call on Dec. 2, 2016, between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. The call was thought to be the first time a president or president-elect of the United States has directly contacted the leader of Taiwan since 1979. The call marked a break with convention, as China has for decades blocked formal relations between the U.S. and Taiwan. Days later, Trump, during an interview with Fox News Sunday, signaled the potential for a change in the U.S. position on China.

"I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," Trump told Fox.

However, Tillerson, responding to Sen. Gardner at the hearing, said he was not aware of a plan to alter the “one-China policy.”

President-elect Trump has also been a vocal critic of China’s military build-ups in disputed territories in the South China Sea.

In a series of tweets following the call with Tsai, Trump said, “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into […]their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!”

Tillerson, whose prior association with Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn criticism, reiterated Trump’s sentiment on the issue, telling the committee China’s military build-up in the South China Sea was akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.

“It is taking of territory that others lay claim to,” he told the committee.

He noted that the South China Sea is a crucial area for international trade and suggested that it would be a threat to the “entire global economy” if China is allowed to dictate the terms of passage through the waters.

“China’s activity in this area is extremely worrisome,” he said, also noting the preference for dealing with the dispute via ASEAN member countries and international law.

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on July 12, 2016, unanimously ruled in favor of the Philippines in the South China Sea territorial dispute, saying that China has no "historical title" over waters or resources in the South China Sea. The ruling sparked anger in Beijing and calls by the international community for China to recognize the legality of the ruling. In a statement after the ruling, the Chinese foreign ministry “solemnly declared” that the ruling was invalid and non-binding, and that China does not accept or recognize it.

The Philippines took the case to the Court in January 2013 but a hearing was not held until November 2015. The case tested the role of historical rights and the source of maritime entitlements in the area. In its long-expected ruling, the Court said there was "no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the 'nine-dash line.'"

The tribunal said that as it had found that none of the features of the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China and now feature military installations, were capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, it could “declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”


Editor: Olivia Yang