Updated: Oct 15, 2021
For decades, Taiwan has been viewed as an insignificant player, or even a pawn, in the U.S.-China relations. This narrative is derived from a narrow Sino-American relations analysis framework, in which Taiwan itself even does not have a say. After all, the supporters of the game of power politics do not attend to moral code. To get a fair and objective view on U.S.-Taiwan relations, one has to be realistic to see things as they are, instead of being confused by any partisan opinions and do their bidding.
The truth is: Taiwan is and will for a long time be a U.S. ally. This relationship is a historical legacy of the alliance between the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek and the U.S. under President Roosevelt during the Second World War. This simple fact has resurfaced to the public in recent years, especially since 2020, when the tensions between the U.S. and China have been escalating. Increasingly, Beijing and Washington see each other as the ultimate rivalry in a new cold war. Under such geopolitical circumstances, Taiwan’s role in East Asian politics will become ever more important as the security of America and the Maritime Silk Road (connecting many Southeast Asian countries) depend on Taiwan’s position.
CREDIT: Encyclopaedia Britannica
Taiwan matters to U.S. homeland security
The coronavirus outbreak and Taiwan’s outstanding track record of controlling this pandemic in 2020 also helped warm the U.S.-Taiwan relations. On August 9, 2020, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai of the Republic of China. Secretary Azar’s agenda is mostly about public health issues. But this event is politically significant not only because Azar is the highest ranking American cabinet official to visit Taiwan since 1979, it also signals the U.S. government’s efforts to cooperate with its key allies when it faces challenges from an imminent Chinese geopolitical threat.
The South China Sea has become a major battleground between the U.S. and China in recent months, and the Taiwan factor would determine the future stability of this region. During late June, it is reported that the U.S. sent military aircraft on a six-day intelligence-gathering mission near the Bashi Channel (south of Taiwan island). The purpose of this mission is detecting and tracking Chinese nuclear-powered submarines. Collection and analysis of the electronic sonar system of the Chinese submarines is critical to monitor and control unusual activities in the Bashi Channel and to secure sea control by the U.S. naval operations. Furthermore, the Bashi Channel is crucial for the U.S. first island chain defense system because through which the Chinese nuclear-powered submarines would pose a direct nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland.
It is no secret that China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea in the past several years. In 2016, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Chinese government’s territorial claims over the South China Sea is invalid. However, under the current circumstances, it is wishful thinking to expect that the Communist Part of China would obey the ruling given its position in the power dynamic of this region. One function of international organizations is to provide a platform for conflicting parties to negotiate and solve disputes, such as the WTO dispute settlement system, but the essence of this case is about power. In fact, this sea area provides ideal conditions to construct deep sea fortress zones that help submarines hide and avoid anti-submarine reconnaissance. This is exactly why both Beijing and Washington will continue to compete in this region. And it is also the reason why Taiwan matters to the U.S. and regional countries from a security perspective.
The security of Taiwan and the U.S. party politics
One major reason the Taiwan issue being tricky is because of regime legitimacy in the context of Chinese politics and its ramifications for international relations. Both Beijing and Taipei used to claim that they represent China. The U.S. government under President Nixon, partly out of the need for alliance to confront with the Soviet Union, partly because of its failure to distinguish the nature of the Communist Party of China and the Nationalist Government in Taipei, broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and established formal relations with Beijing in 1979. Since then Taiwan has been excluded from most international organizations as Beijing sees it a violation of its “One China Principle” when other countries conduct formal diplomacy with the government in Taipei.
Since President Trump came to power, the U.S. policy toward Taiwan is clear: strengthen this bilateral relations, and enhance Taiwan’s international influence. In the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, the U.S. government considers Taiwan, Japan and South Korea as important regional allies to push forward the ideal of a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific region. Historically, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act has been the cornerstone legal framework for the U.S. that includes arms sales to Taiwan. But, the Trump administration’s positioning Taiwan as an ally in recent years is a tactical move to deepen this bilateral cooperation in defense, security and military spheres. This also signals Taiwan’s neighbors, especially Japan and South Korea, that the U.S. is committed to maintaining the security alliance framework in East Asia. In order to facilitate mutual policy cooperation, the U.S. government also implemented the Taiwan Travel Act in 2018, further encouraging other countries to enhance their relations with Taiwan.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak and the global economic shutdown, the U.S. government and business groups have accelerated their initiative to decrease reliance on China as a procurement market and reorganize the global supply chain. In particular, when facing shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and other medical supplies, the Trump administration had criticized the Chinese control of these critical medical supplies and appealed to American businesses to diversify supply sources. Naturally, cooperation with Taiwan serves as a viable option for the U.S. On top of that, the Trump administration also decided to withdraw funding and personnel from the World Health Organization. Given that Taiwan is not a formal member of UN organizations, the Trump administration may have also considered the possibility of cooperating with Taiwan in order to establish a new mechanism for global public health as an alternative.
However, the U.S. policy stance toward Taiwan may look different in the current Biden administration. Firstly, the U.S.-Taiwan relation depends on which political party sits in the White House. Compared to the Trump administration’s confrontational approach, the Biden administration’s China policy may be more restrained and less impulsive, a perspective held at least by some policy experts. The implication of this shift is that the Biden administration may play down the Taiwan card to avoid further antagonizing China. This is understandable because some factions within the Democratic Party have been susceptible to the engagement policy for decades, under the influence of the so-called Panda Huggers from both academic and policy circles.
Second, it still remains to see if the Biden administration would completely reverse course with Taipei and like-minded regional countries. The current tensions between the U.S. and China result from a combination of military, espionage, economic, ideological and political factors. The U.S. government needs to seriously assess its China and Taiwan policies and coordinate with its regional allies if necessary to deal with China from a strategic perspective in the long run. Ironically, the former vice president Biden seems still confirmed that Russia is the most dangerous challenger for the U.S. So for the U.S. government, after the fallout of Afghanistan, the Taiwan issue will be the critical test because the failure of which means jeopardizing the U.S. national security and putting millions of people’s lives under nuclear threat.
Taiwanese and American politicians never stop saying that both sides share common values and belief in democracies. But as China keeps building up its state power and international influence, it has become increasingly urgent for the U.S. to work with Taiwan on many pressing issues. From their standpoints, this is not about the U.S. giving one-sided support to Taiwan, rather, it is a mutual assurance of national security.