Written by Kelvin Chen.
In the past six months, China has significantly ramped up its efforts to isolate Taiwan and threaten its existence as a sovereign nation. As the Tsai Ing-wen administration remains steadfast in its support for the “status quo,” President Xi Jinping has been unilaterally changing the dynamics of cross-Strait relations. However, despite Beijing’s recent wave of unrelenting political pressure, it has proven to be counterproductive as relations between Washington and Taipei have been improving. Amid China’s hostility, the U.S. appears to have reprioritized its alliance with Taiwan to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and to support the island-nation in its democratic values.
Threats, obstruction and pressure
China’s tactics have aimed to degrade Taiwan’s political status and threaten its security. Most noticeably, China has persisted in blocking any attempts to allow it to participate in various international organizations. In May 2018, to name just one, the World Health Assembly (WHA) again rejected Taipei’s request to partake in the meeting, again due to Beijing’s protest. Though Taiwan had anxiously waited for a formal invitation from the World Health Organization (WHO), it never came. Alternatively, Taipei sent a group of officials and doctors to hold sideline meetings with regular members of the organization.
In addition to obstructing Taiwan’s international participation, China’s continued poaching of Taipei’s official diplomatic allies has threatened Taiwan’s sovereignty. By gaining recognition from these small countries, President Xi aims to delegitimize Taipei’s sovereignty before attempting to incorporate it into the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
While not the sole facet of the island-nation’s legitimacy (many, including Taiwan Sentinel, have argued that in fact small allies do not matter much), it is nevertheless unsettling to see its official allies gradually switching recognition to China. In May this year, Beijing succeeded in establishing relations with Santo Domingo and Ouagadougou. Upon finalizing its relations with Burkina Faso, China then beckoned Taiwan’s last African ally, Swaziland, to follow suit and recognize Beijing, adding to fears that more diplomatic losses could occur. Under the Tsai administration, Taiwan has lost four official allies. It it is important for Taiwan to have recognition and support from other states as it strives to expand its participation on the world stage.
More worrisome is the increase in air and naval exercises conducted by China’s military. Fighter jets and navy ships have been encircling Taiwan in increasingly frequent patrols, and on some occasions have even entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). On April 18, military aircraft participated in a patrol around Taiwan, according to the Chinese air force’s microblog.
On May 11, bombers and fighter aircraft took part in an exercise, again encircling Taiwan. On June 23, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships sailed along the east coast of Taiwan. These are only some of the drills China has conducted of late, contributing to the militarization of the Taiwan Strait and directly threatening Taiwan’s national security and sovereignty. In response to these close encounters, Taiwan has scrambled military jets and ships to tail the Chinese intruders. China’s goal is to intimidate Taiwan’s 23 million people with these exercises and deter any sentiment of independence in the country.
Yet another tactic Beijing has implemented to sabotage Taipei’s legitimacy is its strict enforcement of its “one China” principle on progressively non-political matters around the world. Though this strategy is nothing new, the Xi administration has been more vigilant in not missing any opportunity to impose the party’s “principle” onto trivial matters. Although this method has been used as a tool to sway public opinion in foreign countries, its effectiveness remains to be seen.
In January this year, Marriot Hotel was forced to shut down its Chinese-language website upon Beijing’s orders — the reason being a supposed designation error: Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau were listed as individual nations in an online survey sent to customers. As a result, the hotel group’s chief executive issued an apologydeclaring the company’s respect for China’s sovereignty and “territorial integrity.” In mid-May, the U.S. clothing company, Gap, was forced to apologize for omitting Taiwan and the South China Sea in a T-shirt design.
Around that time, several international airlines were compelled to “respect China’s territorial claims and not give the impression that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are independent territories,” in a letter issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Failure to do so would be met with severe economic consequences. Airlines around the world were initially given 30 days to comply with the demand. However, there has been an extension since then. Many carriers have already heeded the demand and designated Taiwan as part of China.
This series of controversies is blatant ploy to keep foreign companies in line with Beijing’s “one China” principle. As China builds up more economic clout, this goal will ostensibly be increasingly easier to achieve.
U.S. reaction to China’s assertiveness
While China has essentially placed a political chokehold on Taiwan, the U.S. has not sat idly by on the sidelines. Growing concerns over China’s encroaching influence in East Asia have spurred a new wave of action from Washington. The Donald Trump administration has maintained its firm dedication to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 and continuously strived to enhance ties with President Tsai. Various legislative efforts and dialogue have already taken place, paving the way for future cooperation between the two countries.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was passed on Dec. 12, 2017, has several significant stipulations regarding Taiwan. First of all, it calls for a systematic approach to transfers of defense articles and defense services for Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability, all of which is compatible with the TRA. Next, it encourages the invitation of the Taiwanese armed forces to participate in military exercises. The Act also supports the implementation of a program for exchanges of senior military officers and senior officials with Taiwan to improve military-to-military relations. Furthermore, the NDAA affirms the importance of conducting bilateral naval exercises, as well as considering the “advisability and feasibility of reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States navy and the Taiwan navy.” The passing of this Act symbolizes a firm commitment to Taiwan amid tense cross-Strait relations and rampant Chinese intimidation.
In March 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act was signed into law. The bill encourages officials at all levels of the U.S. government to travel to Taiwan to meet their Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa. With no restrictive parameters, there can finally be a steady stream of official calls. While highly unlikely, even the opportunity for a presidential summit is now possible. This act allows U.S.-Taiwan relations to progress without being hindered by political red tape. Proper communication channels and regularly scheduled visits between Taiwanese and American officials will enhance cooperation and solidify Taiwan as a steadfast ally in East Asia, much to China’s chagrin.
In mid-June, Taipei and Washington signed an agreement allowing the exchange of scientific research and permitting visits between Taiwan’s research institutions and American national defense research institutions beginning next year. This is an unprecedented development, as such U.S. facilities have never been open to Taiwanese researchers.
According to the Taipei Times, “the deal [will] greatly benefit Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities, including the domestic production of military vessels and aircraft.” With access to more high-tech research, this deal puts Taiwan on a faster track to developing new missiles and improving its existing programs, including the Sky Bow, Sky Sword, and Brave Wind missile systems. As Chinese military aircraft and naval vessels encircle Taiwan on frequent drills, it is vital that Taiwan maintains a strong asymmetric defense in case of an attack. Furthermore, this sharing of highly sensitive information demonstrates the trust and confidence the U.S. has towards Taiwan and portrays the island-nation as a reliable defense partner.
As China’s claims of “territorial integrity” and political pressuring continues, so too, will the U.S.-Taiwan partnership. A flurry of events have already occurred in the past few weeks. The June 12 opening of the newly constructed, US$250 million AIT building affirms American presence in Taiwan and East Asia, and is an investment that binds the U.S. and Taiwan together.
On June 25, it was reported that the U.S. Navy had invited Taiwan to participate in the Pacific Partnership humanitarian relief training mission in the Solomon Islands taking place in August. NDAA 2019, which serves as a follow-up to the previous NDAA, was introduced in Congress in April and is now being finalized before being sent to the White House. On June 29, news of a U.S. State Department request for U.S. Marines to ensure security at the new AIT complex (such deployments are common at U.S, embassies worldwide) resurfaced, stirring excitement and speculation in Taipei.
Outgoing AIT Director Kin Moy speaks at a press conference on May 21 about growing U.S.-Taiwan ties as the new, US$250 million AIT compound is about to be opened (photo courtesy of the AIT official Facebook page).
Collectively, these moves in the past six months prove that U.S.-Taiwan relations are stable. While there could always be setbacks in the short term, it is clear that Washington has not and will not forget Taipei. Furthermore, there is hope for further cooperation and advancement between the two nations. As much as Beijing threatens and protests, we can expect that Taipei and Washington will remain steady allies for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, it is important to stress that Taiwan must avoid becoming over-reliant on American support and should forge stronger relations with other countries in the region. As we was during the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore as well as in dialogue between the U.S. and the E.U., President Trump is unpredictable and willing to walk back on American commitments to its allies.
Beijing hasn’t realized that its hegemonic behavior is a primary factor in fueling stronger ties between Taipei and Washington. China wrongly believes that coercion is the best strategy to achieve unification, when in fact, it is a futile effort. This isn’t the first time that Beijing’s strategy has backfired. During the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996, the PLA conducted missile tests close to Taiwan’s shores, instigating a show of force from the U.S. 7th Fleet and the election of Lee Teng-hui to the presidency. Its actions had the opposite effect.
Instead of instilling fear and doubt in the Taiwanese leadership, China’s actions today, just like before, have only strengthened Taiwan’s resolve to resist such intimidation and brought the U.S. and Taiwan closer together. What began as a seemingly surefire plan to draw Taiwan closer has culminated into a disintegrating strategy and increased cooperation between Washington and Taipei. Until Beijing realizes its mistake, unification efforts will remain evermore challenging.
Kelvin Chen is a graduate of the International Masters program in Asia Pacific Studies (IMAS) at National Chengchi University. His primary research focuses on Taiwan’s strategic security and foreign policy. This article was first published on Taiwan Sentinel and has been republished with permission of the editor. Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of Taiwan/Flickr.