US Taiwan Policy: Despite Setbacks, Still Moving in the Right Direction

In the long-term, the US will likely continue to enhance its support of Taiwan

Michael Turton
Jul 30, 2018 · 5 min read

July was the kind of tumultuous month that left observers of the US-Taiwan relationship shaking their bottles of pain reliever to see if any pills were left. On the one hand there was the US, sending warships through the Strait in a clear signal to Beijing and to America’s friends and allies in the area. Congressional Republicans indicated strong support for Taiwan and then voted for a defense bill that contained a number of pro-Taiwan provisions and called for a stronger policy on China.

On the other hand, the Trump Administration caved completely on China’s demand that US airlines treat Taiwan as part of China. There was no leadership or push back from either the Republican-controlled Congress or the Republican Administration. Offered a chance to look strong in a case of obvious bullying, the Trump Administration did nothing. As many observers remarked, this will only result in further bullying by China.

Nevertheless, in the long run, US policy is taking on a more anti-China posture. For example, the US State Department, long supportive of soothing China’s hurt feelings, is changing. Veteran China reporter John Pomfret observed in the Washington Post this week:

China’s tactics have alienated many members of a younger generation of State Department officials who used to be considered the strongest proponents of smooth relations with Beijing…

The Pentagon

The Pentagon has traditionally been a strong supporter of Taiwan. In recent years, Republicans have been seen as more supportive of the island nation, though Taiwan has always been a bipartisan issue. Older readers will recall the days when Democrats Ted Kennedy and Stephen Solarz were staunch Taiwan supporters. This month the Republican Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It called for enhanced support for US weapons sales to Taiwan, particularly aimed at asymmetric capabilities for Taiwan, and also called for expanded military contacts and military training (a detailed list of Taiwan-related items is here).

More importantly, the bill mandated that the US improve the predictability of arms sales to Taiwan. For the last three administrations the US has provided irregular packages of arms that have been large and expensive. These have attracted negative attention from China and its apologists in the media. Many commentators have noted that if the US were to provide smaller, regular arms packages, it would make China seem even more irrational and oppressive if it objected to them. Normalizing the flow of weapons would also make weapons deliveries less noticeable and less controversial. For example, in June of last year the US approved seven different arms packages totaling $1.3 billion for Taiwan. $1.3 billion can be made to sound large and provocative, but if the sale had been approved as seven regular deliveries, it is doubtful anyone would have even noticed, let alone objected. It would also help Taiwan plan its budgets better, as local papers noted last month.

The NDAA also took two other important steps. First, it “Directs a whole-of-government strategy on China to address the Chinese Communist Party’s use of political influence, economic tools, cyber activities, global infrastructure and development projects, and military activities against the United States and allies and partners”. Second, it called for China’s influence activities, “including efforts to influence media, cultural institutions, business, and academic and policy communities in the United States” to be included in the Pentagon’s annual report on China. This means that Congress has officially recognized these activities as a security threat. Consistent with this, the bill specifically strips DOD funding from colleges that host Confucius Institutes.

United Airlines U.S. website “Taiwan” search results

Despite the abject failure to confront China’s bullying US airlines over their correctly listing of Taiwan as a separate political entity, it is clear that the US government remains committed to an overall policy of support for Taiwan and increasingly, resistance to China. Congressional support of Taiwan remains firm: the Congressional Taiwan Caucus current has 137 members. Rep. Ted Yoho, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said in a recent speech that though Taiwan “exists in a gray area,” the US should expand that area. He added that “Congress should also do all we can within the current framework of the relationships to recognize reality."

Historically, as the US has moved away from China, it has moved toward Taiwan. Despite occasional setbacks, as US impatience with China continues to mount, expect US support for Taiwan to continue to rise and US policy toward Taiwan to be the subject of continued discussion and upgrades.

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Michael Turton

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Michael Turton is a longtime expat in Taiwan, who operates the well known blog The View from Taiwan on Taiwan politics, history, and culture.

American Citizens for Taiwan | 美臺會

Helping Americans understand the importance of Taiwan to the United States