Arms Sales and High-Level Visits Signal Closer U.S. Relations with Taiwan

ROC Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (left) and ROC President Tsai Ing-Wen (third from left) were among the participants at the “U.S.-Taiwan Business Summit” held during Tsai’s visit to New York City, July 12-13, 2019. (Source: Twitter)

Introduction

The first half of 2019 has seen a steady procession of developments marking a closer alignment between the United States and Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China, or ROC). In May, a meeting was held between U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and his ROC counterpart David Lee (李大維) in the course of the latter’s visit to the United States (Taiwan News, May 25). In early June, the Pentagon’s newly-released Indo-Pacific Strategy Report included Taiwan in a list of “countries” friendly to the United States, and referred to Taiwan as one of the “reliable, capable, and natural partners of the United States” in Asia, which is “actively taking steps to uphold a free and open international order.” [1]

Events in July were capped off by a new round of U.S. military sales to Taiwan, and two brief visits to U.S. territory by ROC President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) (see details below). Taken together, these developments have signaled a clear reorientation of U.S. policy towards a closer relationship with Taiwan—one which has been eagerly reciprocated by President Tsai, who has proclaimed her administration’s “determination to promote Taiwan on the international stage” (Twitter, July 21). Conversely, the reaction has been harsh from state sources in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) (Xinhua, May 27), thereby threatening to introduce further tensions into a Sino-U.S. relationship that is already severely strained.

A New Round of Arms Sales to Taiwan

Throughout both the Bush (43) and Obama Administrations, arms sales to Taiwan were frequently delayed or aborted due either to U.S. concerns about damaging relations with the PRC, or to domestic political wrangling in Taiwan—and as a result, arms sales were often conducted on an irregular and ad hoc basis (CRS, August 29, 2014). Officials in the Trump Administration, by contrast, have indicated intent to normalize arms sales and other forms of security cooperation with Taiwan (VOA, July 19). In June, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Randall Shriver stated that Taiwan could contribute to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy through further investments in its own defense, and that the administration envisioned a “more normal process” for arms sales to Taiwan, which would “treat Taiwan as a normal security assistance partner.” [2]

Since April, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) has notified Congress of intent to proceed with the sale to Taiwan of three major packages of military equipment and training services:

  • The continuation of a pilot training program at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and maintenance and logistics support for existing F-16 fighter aircraft in Taiwan’s inventory (estimated cost of $500 million) (DSCA, April 15);
  • A large package of military vehicles, munitions, and support equipment, headlined by one hundred eight M1A2T Abrams battle tanks (estimated cost of $2 billion) (DSCA, July 8);
  • Two hundred fifty Block I-92F Stinger missiles and four Block I-92F Stinger Fly-to-Buy missiles, with associated support equipment (estimated cost of $223.56 million) (DSCA, July 8).

Additionally, there has been press speculation that an additional approval is forthcoming for sales of sixty-six new F-16V variant airframes (Taiwan News, July 23); however, as of the date of this article, no such notification has been issued.

The announcements of the arms sales drew predictable demands from the PRC to cancel the sales, as well as harsh condemnation and unspecified threats to levy sanctions on any companies involved with the sales (Xinhua, July 12; CNBC, July 15). In the wake of these notifications, the PRC also announced that it would conduct air and naval exercises in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait—exercises widely assumed to be a symbolic expression of Beijing’s displeasure (SCMP, July 14). After nearly three weeks, the expected exercises reportedly commenced with drills off the coast of Zhejiang Province on July 28 (SCMP, July 29).

Taiwan’s President Visits the United States in July

Symbolically, the most prominent sign of closer U.S.-Taiwan ties was the two-part visit by ROC President Tsai Ing-Wen to the United States in July. Visits to U.S. soil by senior Taiwan officials, even when undertaken in a nominally private capacity, have long been sources of severe friction in both the Sino-U.S. and the cross-Strait relationships: for example, Beijing’s reaction to the June 1995 visit by then-ROC President Lee Teng-Hui to give a speech at his alma mater of Cornell University was one of the precipitating factors of the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis (UPI, June 9, 1995; Scobell, January 1999).

In March 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA) was signed into U.S. law, containing language that explicitly called for reversing earlier policies under both Republican and Democratic administrations of denying travel access to the United States for senior ROC officials. [3] Although formal exchanges with Taiwan are still severely limited in comparison to states with whom the United States maintains official diplomatic relations, there has been a marked increase in U.S. visits by high-level Taiwan government officials since passage of the TTA.

President Tsai first made stops in the United States in August 2018, in the course of a trip to visit Paraguay and Belize (Taiwan Today, August 21). The days spent on U.S. soil were not official visits; rather, they were treated as “transit stops” on the way to South America. However, the extended layovers allowed Tsai to engage in activities of a political and (unofficial) diplomatic nature, to include a speech delivered at the Reagan Presidential Library in Los Angeles, and a visit to the Johnson Space Center in Houston (Politico, August 20). Tsai’s remarks in California represented the first public statements made on U.S. soil by a Taiwan president since 2003, and she used the occasion both to assert Taiwan’s value as a contributing member of the international community, and to praise Reagan’s legacy as a defender of freedom throughout the world (CBS Los Angeles, April 14, 2018; ROC Presidential Office, April 14, 2018).

Tsai has conducted similar “transit stops” this year, beginning with a stay in Hawaii in March, made in the course of a trip to visit diplomatic allies in the Pacific (Honolulu Star-Advertiser, March 27). During this stop, Tsai pressed the case for U.S. approvals of Taiwan requests for new arms purchases, and made a speech that warned against the “Hong Kong example” of PRC efforts to undermine democratic societies like Taiwan (AFP, March 28).

In mid-July, President Tsai undertook a “Journey of Freedom, Democracy, and Sustainability” to the Caribbean from July 13-18 to visit four of the island states that still offer diplomatic recognition to the ROC: Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Saint Lucia (Agencia EFE, July 14; ROC Foreign Ministry, July 15; ROC Presidential Office, July 17; St. Lucia News, July 17). [4] On both the outbound and return legs of this Caribbean trip, Tsai made stops in the United States: first in New York City on July 12-13, and then in Denver on July 19-20. Although the events conducted during these stops involved private institutions and state-level officials rather than representatives of the U.S. federal government, these meetings and speeches still represented the most ambitious and overtly political events conducted by a Taiwan political leader on U.S. soil in many years.

In New York, Tsai attended a conference hosted by the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council (see accompanying image), and was the key speaker at a Columbia University discussion event. At this latter engagement  President Tsai spoke forcefully to praise Taiwan’s democratic evolution, and warned against the creeping authoritarian influences promoted by the PRC. She warned that “freedom around the world is under threat like never before,” and that “given the opportunity, authoritarianism will smother even the faintest flicker of democracy” in societies like Taiwan. She warned in particular about “economic enticements with hidden strings attached,” and stated that “China exploited [Taiwan’s] reliance [on the Chinese market] as a means to infiltrate our society, an attempt to use it as a bargaining chip to be traded for our democracy” (Columbia University, July 12; ROC Presidential Office, July 13).

On the return side of her Caribbean trip, President Tsai made a stop in Denver, where she was the guest at a dinner with state officials from Colorado and Wyoming (CBS Denver, July 18; Colorado Politics, July 18). She also attended multiple events hosted by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia. These included: a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO; a visit to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Earth Observing Laboratory in Boulder, CO; and a horseback-riding excursion (Gardner Senate Office, July 25; Twitter, July 21).

ROC President Tsai Ing-Wen (right) and U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (left) on a horse-riding outing during Tsai’s “transit stop” in Denver, July 19-20. (Source: Twitter)

Tsai’s public events in the United States drew a predictably harsh reaction from media outlets and spokespersons for the PRC. Upon Tsai’s arrival in New York, PRC Ambassador Cui Tiankai tweeted that “Taiwan is part of China. No attempts to split China will ever succeed. Those who play with fire will only get themselves burned. Period.” (Twitter, July 12). The English edition of People’s Daily opined that “the United States played the Taiwan card against China, allowing Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen to use the United States as a platform to promote ‘Taiwan independence’ and undermine China-US relations… she seized every opportunity she could to make a show of it, serving as a pawn for foreign powers to interfere in China’s internal affairs” (People’s Daily Online, July 16).

Conclusion

The combined weight of statements from official policy documents, an apparently more regular process for arms sales freed from political linkage, and high-level visits by ROC policymakers (even if treated in an unofficial, or only semi-official, capacity) all indicate a decisive shift in the nature of U.S. government policy towards Taiwan. Furthermore, this warming trend has been displayed in both the executive and legislative branches, and with bipartisan support across the U.S. political divide. Following the chill that settled into U.S.-Taiwan relations during the parallel George W. Bush / Chen Shui-Bian administrations, and an improved but still distant relationship between the Barack Obama / Ma Ying-Jeou administrations, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is now the closest one seen in decades.

This warming of U.S.-Taiwan ties has progressed in tandem with the steady deterioration of relations between the United States and the PRC. Beijing continues to deny any legitimacy to the government of Taiwan, and maintains the rigid position that the island is an inalienable part of Chinese territory—and that it is therefore subject to the rightful authority of the PRC and its ruling Communist Party. Any movement towards closer U.S. relations with Taiwan may therefore be expected to produce a concurrent erosion of relations with Beijing. The Trump Administration has evidently decided that, at least for now, this is a price worth paying. Whether this trend continues, and whether it survives potential future political shifts in both Washington and Taipei, will be a development well-worth watching.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. Contact him at: [email protected]

Notes

[1] “As democracies in the Indo-Pacific, Singapore, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Mongolia are reliable, capable, and natural partners of the United States. All four countries contribute to U.S. missions around the world and are actively taking steps to uphold a free and open international order. The strength of these relationships is what we hope to replicate in our new and burgeoning relationships in the Indo-Pacific.” See: U.S. Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region (June 1, 2019), p. 30. https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.

[2] Remarks by Randall Shriver, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, at the Heritage Foundation on June 26, 2019. https://www.heritage.org/asia/event/the-department-defenses-indo-pacific-strategy.

[3] “This bill expresses the sense of Congress that the U.S. government should encourage visits between U.S. and Taiwanese officials at all levels… [and] permit high-level Taiwanese officials to enter the United States under respectful conditions and to meet with U.S. officials, including officials from the Departments of State and Defense.” See: Text of Public Law #115-135 (Taiwan Travel Act), signed into law March 16, 2018. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/535.

[4] Currently, only seventeen states still maintain formal diplomatic relations with the ROC (the PRC will not allow any state to maintain dual relations with itself and the ROC). This list of seventeen is comprised primarily of small island states in the Pacific and the Caribbean, a handful of states in Latin America, and the Vatican. See: “Diplomatic Allies,” ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (undated). https://www.mofa.gov.tw/en/AlliesIndex.aspx?n=DF6F8F246049F8D6&sms=A76B7230ADF29736.