Relations between Taiwan and the U.S. have been built upon mutual security interests. In the 1950s, the KMT regime’s self-preservation interest overlapped with Washington’s containment strategy in Asia. While Taiwan’s population suffered under martial law, the security relations between the two countries flourished under the 1955 mutual defense treaty. In 1979, strategic clarity underscored by a mutual defense treaty and official diplomatic relations was replaced by strategic ambiguity and unofficial relations, in which the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Washington, D.C. pretend they are not embassies of their respective countries and the U.S. remains ambiguous as to what its reaction to China’s aggression would look like.
The framework for bilateral relations is the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA). It is not a treaty between two friendly nations, but a U.S. domestic law, arguably a far cry from formal defense treaty. Or is it?
The absence of official ties could create the impression that the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship is resting on unstable ground. After all, regulation of relations with a country via means of a domestic law, which is not reciprocated by the other side, is a rather unusual way of doing business. Paradoxically, the fact that the TRA is a U.S. domestic law could mean a better chance of Washington’s response in case of PRC’s aggressive behaviour toward Taiwan. The TRA makes U.S. relations with Taiwan a single area of U.S. foreign policy that is not exclusively in hands of the administration. Its existence provides legal leverage for the U.S. Congress to put pressure on the administration. Granted, it has been of rather symbolical importance lately. Unsuccessful Congressional pressure to push for an F-16 sale is a case in point. Nevertheless, the TRA introduced strong bipartisan Congressional support for Taiwan into an equation. Heritage Foundation’s expert Walter Lohman believes that the TRA comes close to what otherwise would be a formal treaty:
The TRA contains assurances of U.S. concern for Taiwan’s security that are as strong as possible short of a treaty commitment. It declares “that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern [as opposed to internal PRC concern].” Additionally, it declares that any attempt to determine Taiwan’s future by anything “other than peaceful means” constitutes “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
Lohman is right. In addition, while the language of the TRA is vague, it is ultimately not any more vague than language used in some of the mutual defense treaties that bind the U.S. with its allies. It is worthwhile to look at the wording of the TRA’s predecessor, the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, its article V in particular:
Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the West Pacific Area directed against the territories of either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.
Ultimately, the absence of formal links between Taiwan and the U.S. matter less in terms of formal obligations. The key variable is the political will to make difficult decisions at a time when the need arises. Where it matters is the public perception of the relationship. For it to work in a desirable way, strategic ambiguity is not the best tool. It is an absence of political will that prevents greater utilization of the existing framework.
Cold War-era interests that bonded Washington and Taipei together are long gone. However, a new factor has emerged to strengthen relations between Taiwan and America: Taiwan’s democracy. During the Cold War, U.S. ties to Taiwan were dictated by geostrategic interests. Times have changed, but little has changed in terms of Taiwan’s significance. Compared to the past, Taiwan’s democracy adds an additional layer strengthening Taiwan’s relationship not only with the U.S., but also with U.S. regional allies, Japan in particular.
The importance of Taiwan-U.S. relations goes well beyond the limits of bilateral relations. Taiwan is a claimant in both the East and South China Seas, where tensions have been ratcheted up, particularly by Beijing. In the East China Sea, Taiwan has demonstrated a flexible attitude by reaching a fishery agreement with Japan in 2013. Likewise, in the South China Sea, Taiwan is a voice supporting settlement of the disputes according to UNCLOS and other principles of international law. Thus, Taiwan tends to be more supportive of U.S. efforts in the region. Even if Taiwan cannot be expected to completely drop its South China Sea claim, the incoming DPP administration is likely to be less ideologically committed in emphasizing the original ROC claim, and focus more on practical measures related to its hold on Taiping Island. Strong cooperation between Washington and Taipei should manifest in Taiwan playing positive role in managing regional disputes.
…which needs some adjustment…
The TRA provides a solid frame for strong bilateral relations. The problem is a number of political considerations that put Taiwan in an awkward position and put the strength of the mutual security relationship in doubt in the public’s eye. It does not help that Taiwan’s de facto embassy is not allowed to fly the national flag, Taiwan’s government officials are banned from entering Washington, D.C., and the over-reported views of some U.S.-based academics and think-tank experts treat Taiwan as an expendable accessory to U.S.-China relations.
Under the surface, there are many positive exchanges taking place, and last year was quite illustrative in revealing some of the activities that usually stayed undetected. In May 2015, delegation from Taiwan took part in U.S. Marine Corps conference on maritime and amphibious operations in Hawaii. In June 2015, Taipei Times reported that Taiwan’s Army Aviation 601st Brigade formed a sister-unit relationship with U.S. Army 25th Combat Aviation Brigade based in Hawaii. Earlier this year, tragic accident drew attention to a fact that Taiwanese pilots train for nearly 20 years on Luke Air Force Base in Texas.
The question is how to translate extensive cooperation between the two sides into greater confidence in Taiwan, which in turn will strengthen existing cooperation in the eyes of Taiwanese public. Fortunately, it only takes some adjustment in selected areas and carefully calibrated publicity to improve the image of the bilateral relationship.
Military exercises have two basic functions. On a practical level, they help to increase familiarity between allied militaries and examine scenarios for different contingencies. On a political level, they are a form of signalling to domestic public and potential rivals. It is easy to see why the U.S. would be hesitant to openly promote military cooperation with Taiwan. But it is essential to have joint exercises between the two militaries. In case of military conflict, Taiwanese and American soldiers may need to face the enemy together, and without the close cooperation between them that can be achieved only through joint exercises, the alternative is to run two parallel campaigns. Granted, most of these activities do not necessarily need to be publicized. However, making selected opportunities public sends a signal about ongoing cooperation and contributes to deterring Beijing from resorting to military force. Joint exercises in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HADR) is another area where strengthening cooperation is of great importance for both sides given the region’s propensity to natural disasters. A good publicity opportunity is the forthcoming multi-national RIMPAC naval exercise in Hawaii. The Taiwan Navy could send its combat support ship Panshih (also suitable for HADR missions) to avoid the presence of any of the more high-profile warships in Taiwan’s naval inventory. Granted, the Chinese who are likely to participate this year for a second time, despite their 2014 appearance ending rather embarrassingly, would not be very happy. They may even withdrawal their participation. But then, perhaps the U.S. military should not put too big of emphasis on the mil-to-mil contacts with China which are of dubious overall value. An alternative solution is to start with port calls of U.S. Navy ships in Taiwanese ports as well as Taiwanese ships in U.S. ports and naval bases.
Port calls are form of visits that are typically publicised and help to signal a good relationship. It is also an opportunity for the crews to meet their counterparts. This is not to say that members of both armed forces do not meet regularly. According to Ian Easton, around 3000 meetings between members of Taiwan and U.S. military take place every year. What is missing are visits on a high military level. The commander of 5th fleet based in Japan, for example, should be able to visit Taipei and discuss matters of common interests with Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa. Removing the outdated ban on Taiwan’s government officials coming to D.C. should be natural part of the process. One good sign from the past year was the U.S.-Taiwan defense conference, known as the Monterey Talks which has taken place annually since 1997. The significance of last year’s conference was the place: for the first time it took place in Washington, D.C. with Taiwan’s delegation led by former defense minister Andrew Yang.
In the decades since 1979, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan has been the most reliable indicator of U.S. resolve to uphold stability in the Taiwan Strait. That resolve became even more important with Taiwan’s transition to multi-party democracy. However, since mid-2000s sales have become increasingly irregular. Partly for reasons stemming from gridlock in Taiwan during Chen Shui-bian’s second term, partly for what appears to be consideration to Chinese hostile position on any arms sales to Taiwan. The large arms sales packages from years 2008, 2010 and 2011, the last ones until December 2015, were mostly realization of arms package agreed in 2001. Arguably, the amount of weapons acquired between 2009 and 2011 take some time to absorb, which in turn justifies the four year gap between 2011 and the most recent sale in December 2015. However, the long period of no sale has done some harm, and no good. Absence of arms sales has greater potential to encourage than to placate Beijing. The way out is to arrange for arms sales on annual basis, thus making the sales part of status quo. It does not need to include big ticket items every year. That is not really necessary. What is important is to renew some sense of order in the sales.
…to avoid unintended consequences of strategic ambiguity
Strategic ambiguity has served the U.S. for a long time, but the time has come to re-evaluate that approach. China is not the backward military power it used to be in 1980s, nor can Washington be confident it would prevail under any circumstances as in the 1990s. This is not to argue that ambiguity needs to be removed completely from the picture. However, there is inherent value in a more pronounced relationship between Taipei and Washington and unambiguous signals sent to Beijing that intimidation toward Taiwan will not be tolerated. A more confidently pronounced relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. would also be encouraging for other U.S. partners, namely Japan and The Philippines, to seek avenues of closer cooperation.
Ambiguity in its present state presents inherent danger to be misperceived by the Taiwanese public as disinterest. If there is little to show for, especially when most of the bilateral activity slips under the radar for good practical reasons, what confidence is the strength of mutual relationship it elicits? Granted, Washington may feel that ambiguity serves well in checking potential reckless behaviour by Taiwan. However, if that used to be the idea once, it is very outdated now. No one can reasonably argue that Tsai Ing-Wen and other elected leaders of Taiwan would deliberately provoke Beijing , especially if the U.S. could decide not to support Taiwan directly anyway. The case for a more visible security relationship is that it helps to deter Beijing. The ultimate goal is and should be to never have to deal with the question “what if China attacks Taiwan?”
This article was originally published on American Citizens for Taiwan blog on February 21, 2016.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan specialist, a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs, a member of CIMSEC, and an Asia-Pacific Desk Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat. Michal tweets @michalthim.