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September 3, 2020

Asia

US/CHINA: Washington ramps up support for Taiwan, fueling tension with Beijing

BY Gabriel Wildau

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  • The US government has taken a series of steps in recent months to bolster diplomatic, economic, and security relations with Taiwan.
  • Washington and Taipei moved closer to formal negotiations over a bilateral free trade agreement after Taipei eased longstanding restrictions on imports of US pork and beef.
  • Though military conflict remains highly unlikely, tensions over Taiwan could act as an obstacle to compromises between the US and China on other issues.

A series of recent developments in US-Taiwan relations reflect Washington’s efforts strengthen Taiwan’s ability to resist economic and military pressure from Beijing. Though the moves do not constitute a decisive shift in US policy, they reflect an increased willingness in Washington – among both political parties – to provoke Beijing on core sovereignty issues. Military conflict over Taiwan remains virtually unthinkable, but such provocations will likely be an obstacle to any improvement in US-China relations, regardless of who wins the US presidential election in November.

Diplomacy

In March, US Congress passed the Taipei Act, which requires the US government to take steps to elevate Taiwan’s international standing. US Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar visited Taiwan on 9 August and met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan since the US broke off formal diplomatic relations with the island in 1979. The visit prompted China’s foreign ministry to threaten unspecified countermeasures. In May, the US tried and failed to help Taiwan gain observer status at the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization’s annual decision-making meeting.

Economy and trade

In recent days, Washington and Taipei have taken steps towards formal negotiations over a bilateral free trade agreement. Tsai announced on 28 August that her government would ease import restrictions on US beef and pork, which had been a key obstacle to trade negotiations. US producers’ use of the animal-feed additive ractopamine has been a significant public concern in Taiwan, but Tsai’s concession on the issue appears to reflect her calculation that bolstering relations with Washington is now a higher priority.

A senior US State Department official announced the launch of an Economic and Commercial Dialogue with Taiwan on 31 August, though the new dialogue appears to fall short of formal talks on a trade agreement. Such talks would have to be led by the Office of the United States Trade Representative, which has traditionally been concerned that a US-Taiwan trade agreement would disrupt the US trade relationship with mainland China. Still, a trade agreement with Taiwan would not constitute a violation of the “One China Policy,” and formal talks could still come eventually, especially if the US-China phase one trade deal falls apart.

Security

Washington has also increased military support for Taiwan. Last year, the US arranged the sale of 66 F-16 fighter jets worth USD 8bn and 108 Abrams tanks worth USD 2.2bn. In May, the Trump administration took steps towards the sale of advanced torpedoes worth USD 180mn. US arms sales have been a regular occurrence since the Taiwan Relations Act, a 1979 law that requires the US to provide “defensive” weapons to Taiwan, but the US Navy has also increased its presence in the Taiwan Strait this year to send a stronger message of deterrence to Beijing. A US warship crossed through the strait on 31 August for the second time in two weeks. China’s military labeled the earlier transit “extremely dangerous.”

Some influential US voices are calling for even more forceful moves, notably the abandonment of Washington’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Under that policy, the US government implies but does not explicitly declare its intention to defend Taiwan from any attack by mainland China. Advocates of a more forceful policy want the US to issue an explicit security guarantee for Taiwan. The State Department took a symbolic step in that direction on 31 August when it declassified six security assurances issued to Taiwan in the 1980s. The so-called “Six Assurances” from then-President Ronald Reagan to Taipei were widely known but had never been officially acknowledged. Short of a security guarantee, further US steps could include official visits to Taiwan by US military officers, a port call by a US warship, or US military training programs on the island.

In a further sign of mounting security tension, the nationalist tabloid Global Times reported in an editorial on 31 August that China’s military had spotted the “abnormal path” of a US reconnaissance aircraft that was “suspected” of taking off from Taiwan. Take-offs and landings of US military jets in Taiwan would cross China’s “redline to safeguard national unity,” the article said. Though state-owned, Global Times is not an official or authoritative voice for the Chinese leadership, but the article may still reflect how some hardline officials view the situation. Beijing has also increased the frequency of its military flyovers over Taiwan since early 2020.

An obstacle to US/China relations

Despite rising tensions, military conflict over Taiwan remains highly unlikely. As with Washington, Beijing’s formal position has not changed recently. Chinese leaders are formally committed to re-unification, but there is scant evidence that they feel a sense of urgency to achieve this goal in the short term. Rather than a signal of impending aggression, Chinese leaders’ occasional use of threatening rhetoric largely reflects the exigencies of domestic politics, in the context of broader US-China hostilities and popular nationalism. Despite China’s authoritarian political system, leaders still feel significant pressure to cater to nationalist public sentiment.

Even absent open conflict, however, rising tensions over Taiwan could act as an obstacle to any recovery of US-China relations – whether in a second Trump term or under a President Joe Biden. Due largely to nationalist sentiment in China, if Washington is viewed as undermining Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan, Beijing may see compromise with the US on other issues as politically untenable.

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