By: Annabel VirellaÂ |
In 1994, the Clinton Administration completed a comprehensive interagency review of U.S. policy toward Taiwan (the Republic of China, ROC), the first of its kind launched by an administration since the U.S. shifted official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. This review resulted in important policy adjustments more in line with U.S. national security interests. The Taiwan Policy Review (TPR) was the most significant development in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and the first review of policy since theÂ 1979 Taiwan Relations ActÂ (TRA), which governs nearly every aspect of U.S. foreign policy toward Taiwan. The TPR sought to clarify ambiguities in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by simplifying U.S.-Taiwan interactions. Moreover, it sought to strengthen unofficial relations with Taiwan without disrupting official relations with the Peopleâ€™s Republic of China (PRC). However, both China and Taiwan remained tepid about the TPR’s reception because of its prolonged implementation process that dragged on for over a year. With the backdrop of theÂ 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre,Â and Chinaâ€™s provocative weapons sales toÂ IranÂ andÂ Pakistan, the TPR received immense congressional pressure and became a high-profile issue.Â
The TPR resulted in several principal changes to the dynamics of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. For one, Taiwanâ€™s top leaders obtained permission to transit the U.S. under approved conditions, and U.S. officials could meet with Taiwanâ€™s president, vice president, and foreign ministers in their offices. In addition, the TPR authorized cabinet-level exchanges on economic and technical issues, as well as U.S. advocacy of ROC membership into international organizations, provided statehood was not a precondition for membership. Taiwan has since become increasingly active inmultilateral organizationsÂ such as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank (WB), as a member or observer nation.Â
Well past itsÂ 20th anniversary, the TPR, in hindsight, has significantly improved U.S.-Taiwan relations and the overall dynamics of trilateral relations in cross-Strait affairs. However, balancing the U.S. position in cross-Strait relations is a delicate task; the potential for rapid diplomatic deterioration remains, as current relations among the trilateral parties continue to be fraught with hazards, misunderstandings, and distrust. Therefore, in response to the changes in the security, political, and economic environment across the Strait, a new Taiwan Policy Review should be considered and conducted by the Trump administration.Â Â
Significant international and domestic developments beckon a reevaluation of the TPRâ€™s necessity in the modern context. First, the parameters of the 1994 TPR did not appreciate Taiwan as the full-fledged democracy seen today. U.S.-Taiwan protocol is outdated and disjointed, which is a liability for continued stability across the Strait. Second, all three parties have undergone significant leadership transitions and have re-prioritized their national interests. A Taiwan policy irrespective of such changes, and one that is unreasonably restricted in terms of diplomatic communication and contact with Taiwan under TRA and TPR protocol, significantly impairs the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region.Â
The Clinton administration drafted and implemented the TPR before Taiwanâ€”a key geostrategic allyâ€”had become the most liberal nation in Asia and a driver of the world economy. Irrespective of these changes, the U.S.Â One-China policyÂ and protocol towards Taiwan in years since have regressed to eschew backlash from Beijing.Â
The TPR had originally called for further U.S. advocacy of Taiwanâ€™s participation in international organizations. Yet, despite attempts by Congress toÂ legislaterequirements for U.S. support of Taiwanâ€™s multilateral organization applications (i.e. INTERPOL), the U.S. has arguablyÂ failedÂ to make a difference for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations.Â
Regarding the necessity of assisting Taiwanâ€™s defense requirements, the U.S. hasrepeatedly failedÂ to treat Taiwan like a normal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) partner. From 2006 to 2008, the U.S. refused to accept Taiwanâ€™s Letters of Requests (LORs) for the purchase of 66 F-16 C/D fighter jets on three separate occasions. This is essentially comparable to refusing a diplomatic note, which is the highest form of diplomatic disrespect. Arms sales requests from Taiwan, in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration and throughout the Obama administration, were regularly rejected and arms sales notifications were frozen. According to post-1996 Strait Crisis policy, political calculations were made to prefer bundled notifications to Congress as opposed to normal notifications processes (later implemented in 2001). This hindered Taiwan’s defense modernization. Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continued rapid development of its military into a professional and lethal fighting force looming over Taiwan. Evidently, the U.S. no longer adheres to the full spirit and protocol of Clintonâ€™s TPR. Thus, a revised policy framework is necessary to re-align U.S. interests. Without adequate TPR revision, Taiwan policy will continue to teeter on an unstable foundation riddled with liabilities impacting the future of cross-Strait relations.Â
The PRC, ROC, and the U.S. have experienced significant leadership transitions since the TPRâ€™s inception. Maintaining its one-party dominance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has experienced a notable shift from soft power politics under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao to hard power politics under the current incumbent Xi Jinping, who was recently namedÂ â€˜Coreâ€™ LeaderÂ and may be considering aÂ third term. General Secretary Xi Jinping hasÂ deliberately destabilizedÂ cross-Strait relations with his political and psychological warfare against Taiwan, relentless military developments in the South China Sea, and strategic economic and diplomatic suffocation of Taiwan. Xi hasÂ prioritizedÂ resolution of the Taiwan issue in his policy agenda, which is reflected in Chinaâ€™s military expansion and modernization. Because Taiwan is a political priority, the PLA continues itsacquisitionÂ of the necessary capabilities for invasion (e.g. advanced missile technology, increased joint-operations command and control, psychological warfare influence operations, etc.).
On Taiwan, prior to democratization, the Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Party enjoyed nearly half a century of uninterrupted rule. Yet since 1996, Taiwan has experienced three peaceful power transitions between the conservative KMT and the liberal Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Following the landslide victory of DPP President TsaiÂ Ing-wen in 2016, tensions have risen as the CCP attempts to shift the blame and delegitimize Tsai by attacking herÂ image, depreciating herÂ approval rating, and labeling her the â€œtroublemakerâ€ in cross-Strait affairs. President Tsai hasexpressedÂ her willingness to negotiate with Beijing, but the CCP has insisted on imposing acceptance of its one-sided political framework as precondition to cooperation. Xiâ€™s agenda concentrates resources on authoritative reunification, whereas Tsai prioritizes resolution of domestic economic and labor issues. Tsai has attempted to counter Chinese diplomatic coercion with overtures toÂ India,Â Latin America, and the U.S., but PRCÂ coercionÂ of Taiwanâ€™s remaining allies continues to threaten Taiwanâ€™s survival and limits her autonomy. Â Â Â
Following a controversial election, Donald J. Trump became the 45thÂ president of the United States, usurping eight years of political control from the Democratic Party. Traditionally, shifts in party domination almost guarantee new policy reviews. The shift to Republican domination of all branches of government, therefore, implies more fluidity in the policy reassessment, revision, or revocation process. President Trump has already abandoned the Obama administration’s predictively passive approach to U.S.-China affairs, first breaking precedent as president-elect with theTsai-Trump phone callÂ and then delaying U.S.Â acknowledgementÂ of the U.S. One-China policy until a month into his presidency. Although Trumpâ€™s controversial actions and rhetoric may appear ill-advised and diplomatically reckless, he thus-far continues a proactive policy approach in pursuing U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. For instance, President Trump hasÂ reaffirmedÂ Article 5 of theÂ U.S.-Japan Security TreatyÂ and has positioned the U.S. for further cooperation with its regional allies in anticipation of a possible long-term competitive relationship with China. U.S. Navy and Pacific Command leaders already plan to confront Chinaâ€™s maritime assertiveness viaÂ freedom of navigation operations, pending approval of the new commander-in-chief. In addition, PACOM Commander Harry Harris has outlined hisÂ goalÂ to integrate PACOM forces and create more options and capabilities for commanders to maintain U.S. naval dominance in the Pacific. By relying on unpredictability as the crux of U.S. foreign policy, Trumpâ€™s administration has cleverly forced the CCP on the defensive, reacting to any U.S.-induced changes to the status quo. However, on the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to haveÂ concededÂ toÂ Xi Jinping during hisÂ March visit to Beijing, where he echoed CCP framing such as â€œmutual respectâ€ for core interests and â€œwin-winâ€ cooperation. The upcomingÂ Trump-Xi meetingÂ at Mar-a-Lago will provide Trump and Xi with the opportunity to reassert their positions and vie for influence over each other in the bilateral relationship. Â Â
Publicity, a key feature of the 1994 TPR, has been noticeably absent from any current Taiwan policy reviews presumably underway. Trumpâ€™s policy advisers would be wise to eschew media attention that is likely to draw foreign pressure and result in similar implementation blunders that encumbered the Clinton administration. Before significantly altering sensitive policy that has grudgingly maintained peace across the Strait, Trumpâ€™s team must realize that the stability of U.S.-China politics relies on formal written components of the relationship, outlined in the TRA and TPR, in addition to implicit understandings and unspoken agreements. Ambiguous protocol guiding U.S. interactions with Taiwan or lack thereof increases the margin for error. Over time, small discrepancies from unpopular, unreasonable, and unnecessary measures such as unjustified procedural changes on LOR submissions, or diplomats confused about official terminology and permitted interaction, can add up to over-complicate and burden U.S.-Taiwan affairs. Domestic developments and shifting dynamics in trilateral relations have resulted in U.S. foreign policy that is more coherent toward adversaries likeÂ ChinaÂ andÂ North KoreaÂ thanÂ Taiwan,Â a full-fledged democratic ally.Â
Policy reviewers must focus onÂ how the U.S. can move closer to more normal relationsÂ with governments on both sides of the strait over the long term, within the current U.S. One-China policy framework. First, they should consider what is lacking from the U.S.-Taiwan relationship (e.g. high-level consultations on people-to-people exchange, senior level visits, and large bilateral military exercises) and then determine why. Most issues probably stem from the 1972Â Shanghai CommuniquÃ©, an outdated, short-term solution to a long-term problem. The CommuniquÃ© is far from absolute and the U.S. must eventually prepare to renegotiate with the PRC and ROC. However, a precondition of this negotiation should be for both sides to come to the negotiating table as equals. The U.S. mustÂ balance legitimacy independently from recognition of sovereignty and should adhere to the Wilsonian ideal of equality of all states. Regardless of foreign recognition, Taiwan has proven itself a nation ruled by self-determination. In an age where theÂ erosion of democracyÂ has become a global trend, the U.S., at the very least, should appreciate Taiwanâ€™s democratic existence. Failure to adjust policy to reflect the current dynamics of trilateral relations will only encourage tensions to boil. Given the current trajectory, it is only a matter of time before conflict erupts in Asia with Taiwan as its flashpoint.
Annabel Virella is an Intern at The Project 2049 Institute. She is a Master’s candidate at The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University where she studiesÂ Politics and Policy of East Asia. The author would like to thank Mark Stokes and Rachael Burton for their contributions.Â Â