What you need to know
The trilateral relationship between the U.S., China and Taiwan is entering a new phase.
The passage of the Taiwan Travel Act sent a signal to Beijing that the era of self-imposed restrictions on visits by high-level diplomatic and military officials to Taiwan is over.
Ten days later, Ed Randall Royce, the head of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that unanimously passed the (TTA), was on the ground in Taipei affirming the strength of U.S.-Taiwan relations, ahead of meetings with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
Royce followed in the still warm footsteps of Alex Wong, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department, who had delivered some choice remarks on U.S.-China relations at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei’s Hsieh Nien Fan banquet on March 21.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Manufacturing Ian Steff left Taipei just a few days ago, having conducted several days of talks with senior politicians and business people on strengthening bilateral trade.
This flurry of diplomatic activity is no accident, nor is it likely to be limited to the State Department going forward.
Instead, the visits are the vanguard of a sea change in the U.S. stance towards China, and by implication Washington’s willingness to cozy up to Taiwan.
“The U.S. relationship with China is growing increasingly antagonistic and a lot of that is strategic interaction based on what is China doing: eliminating the two-term limit, consolidating power, and the absence of consensus decision making,” said David An, a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) and previously a political-military officer at the State Department under the Obama administration. “Taking a triangular view, when there is more friction between the U.S. and China then the U.S. becomes more supportive of Taiwan.”
The U.S. business community is also reported to have run out of patience with the persistent breaking of promises to conduct market-orientated reforms and the continual holding to ransom of its companies in return for technology transfers. The latest instance of this comes into force today with the activation of clauses in China’s cybersecurity law obliging businesses to jump the Great Firewall using state-sanctioned virtual private networks and to transfer data relating to Chinese citizens to servers based in the country.
As such, long-held assumptions that economic liberalization and global integration would translate into democratization have vanished into dust and with them the willingness to accommodate a soft approach on China.
Within the Pentagon, China’s ongoing militarization of islands natural and artificial in the South China Sea has long been a source of disquiet, as has the launch of full-scale operations at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval base in Djibouti, on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, not to mention China’s December 2017 acquisition of control of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, which has clear operational influence implications for India and the U.S in the Arabian Sea.
And in Taiwan, the end of last year was marked by off-the-cuff comments in Washington from Chinese diplomat Li Kexin that any attempt by the U.S. to follow through with port visits by its navy to Taiwan, as provided for in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, would be casus belli for an invasion of the island.
According to a report in The Washington Post, those comments followed an audacious attempt by China’s Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai to cajole members of the House and Senate’s foreign relations and armed services committees into blocking parts of the TTA, suggesting that such open support for Taiwan “crossed the ‘red line’” and threatened the stability of U.S.-China relations. It is instructive that the signing of the TTA has yet to result in a reaction commensurate with the idea that a Rubicon has been crossed.
Such attempts to influence how the U.S. conducts its foreign and military policy did not go down well, and there remains strong bi-partisan support for the U.S. to take a stronger position on supporting Taiwan as a result.
Over the top of this accreting U.S. stance comes the appointment of noted China hawk John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor, a selection that is viewed as likely to convert heightened anti-CCP sentiment into meaningful action.
"There is a broader emerging consensus that the U.S. needs to respond more assertively to China, which also includes working with allies and partners,” said Michal Thim, a Research Fellow of the Association for International Affairs in the Czech Republic. “Bolton's view, however controversial and his history however problematic, are well within this mindset.”
Bolton is on the record as suggesting that the U.S. should relocate troops based in Okinawa, Japan, to Taiwan, comments that while made as a free agent rather than when a representative of government have nonetheless sparked trepidation as to whether he has the nous to navigate trilateral sensitivities.
“I see Bolton — and, relatedly, who he may introduce into the National Security Council (NSC) to run Asia issues — as a worrisome decision by the Trump administration,” said Lauren Dickey, a PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College and the Political Science Department at the National University of Singapore. “There is a way for the U.S. to continue to strengthen support for Taiwan vis-a-vis China without triggering conflict, and Bolton’s previous comments suggest that he is unaware of this fine line.”
Yet there is also a feeling that Bolton may be the right man at the right time. “I’m hoping that Bolton will be less likely to let Chinese misbehavior slide,” said Dr. Dean Karalekas, associate editor of Strategic Vision, a bimonthly security journal published in Taiwan. “Most importantly, I think Bolton – like [White House National Trade Council Director] Peter Navarro – has an understanding of Taiwan that is rare among U.S. policymakers, and may bring a fresh understanding of how to better interpret signals from Beijing.”
While deploying U.S. troops to Taiwan is unlikely in the short-term, there is a framework for the U.S. to begin pushing back on China, according to GTI’s An.
“The next step up from the status quo is stationing uniformed Marines to guard the American Institute in Taiwan in Taipei, which is already rumored to be in process,” An said. “After that, it would be temporary U.S. naval port visits perhaps lasting less than a week so U.S. sailors can have rest and relaxation in Kaohsiung or Keelung.”
Bolton’s appointment alongside that of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver, who has written in support of such port calls in the past, is viewed as making the likelihood of a U.S. navy visit a real possibility.
“A further step up a ‘cooperation ladder’, would be a rotational troop presence in Taiwan as the U.S. has in Darwin [Australia], where troops are on the ground for a few months and then leave,” An said. "In terms of China's reaction, if cooperation moves gradually up a 'cooperation ladder’ then both sides can gauge one another's reactions; but if there is a sudden jump up four rungs of the ladder then the result can be surprising and unpredictable.”
Thim said that China has demarcated the presence of foreign troops in Taiwan as a reason to go to war, but such saber-rattling has long served Beijing’s purpose of deterring any real investigation of its propensity to bluff. "Should the U.S. take the decision to move the base from Okinawa to Taiwan it would dispel any ambiguity whether or not the U.S. is ready to defend Taiwan,” Thim said. “Beijing’s preference is to fight Taiwan alone and do it fast. How the certainty of U.S. intervention would alter the calculus on use of force is unknown.”
Meanwhile, measures including bulked up arms sales to Taiwan, mandated to be sufficient for the country to defend itself in the event of attack under the Taiwan Relations Act, are in play following a March 26 request by two leading Republican senators for the Trump administration to sell Taiwan F-35 fighter jets.
In a press release, Senate Whip John Cornyn and Senate Armed Services Committee member James Inhofe, both of whom have a track record of strong support for Taiwan, urged Trump to “commit to providing new, U.S.-made fighters to aid in Taiwan's self-defense.”
Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense has said it would welcome the chance to acquire the jets, though it is unclear how capable the country’s public finances are of absorbing the US$150-million-plus cost of each unit. The aircraft are also manufactured by a consortium of nine countries, and it is unclear whether the U.S. would have the necessary support from its partners to proceed with a sale. In any case, Taipei has engaged PR firm Potomac International Partners to lobby for “a more regular schedule of arms sales (to Taiwan) as something that advances the President’s call for peace through strength.”
Aside from shows of diplomatic and military support for Taiwan it is unclear exactly how the U.S might otherwise push back against China.
Beijing’s unilateral opening of northbound flights on the M503 close to the center line of the Taiwan Strait, which caused consternation because of the potential for a military aircraft to switch out of the flight path and into Taiwan’s airspace, but also the danger operating such a route poses to flights crossing the route that serve Taiwanese airports on the islands, remains unresolved.
Yet talk of the U.S. agitating for a seat for Taiwan on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is overdone, according to Chun-Yi Lee is the Founding Editor of Taiwan Insight, Director of the Taiwan Study Programme and an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relation at the University of Nottingham. “How influential could the U.S. be? The Secretary General of the ICAO, Fang Liu, is Chinese.”
China’s militarization of the South China Sea is “is pretty much a fait accompli”, according to Karalekas, though China is likely to tread lightly in the region as the complexion of the latest White House starting team and its intentions comes into sharper focus.
How effective that team is remains an open question, particularly given doubts as to whether Bolton will be able to cooperate with those around him. “He would not have executive powers but will need to coordinate with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump and other stakeholders on the NSC,” said Thim.
GTI’s An indicated there are fears that Mattis, now deemed to be essential in tempering an increasingly war-inclined U.S. cabinet, may find it impossible to work with Bolton, noting that articles claiming to the contrary are smoke that invites a search for fire. “Policy makers generally think that Mattis is doing a great job as Secretary of Defense. It would therefore be a problem if Mattis is sidelined or if he departs the Department of Defense – especially if his replacement is questionable,” An said. Trump’s unenviable record on personnel changes raises the possibility that the president himself may render such speculation moot.
Irrespective of whether Bolton can keep those around him on side, the expectation is that Trump’s current administration will offer a proportional response to future efforts by China to bait Taiwan. “They will push back on actions that are overtly provocative and let slide the ones that are hard to explain to American CNN viewers. At the very least it can be hoped that “the days when Taipei is constantly blamed for inflaming tensions across the Strait, as if Beijing has no agency, are over,” Karalekas said.
The million-dollar question is how that response will be interpreted by a China that has openly stated its global power ambitions, is apparently well on the way to putting its house order on the domestic front, and which wields a considerably more modern and beefed-up PLA.
The regional power dynamic has also changed since the alarums sounded over the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (now more than two decades ago), with China’s US$900-billion Belt and Road Initiative buying up influence throughout southeast Asia and beyond. China's extended economic leverage adds weight to the role of U.S allies, notably South Korea and Japan, in presenting a united front on China, even as the region is transfixed by the prospect of a summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his counterpart in Seoul Moon Jae-in on April 27, and the speculation that this may solidify a face to face between Kim and Trump.
Amid this compelling distraction, the onus is on Taiwan and the Tsai administration to navigate a path through the Scylla and Charybdis of the U.S. and China’s clashing interests.
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