On November 19th, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Senator Ben Cardin expressed concern over what they fear is an apparently weakening relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan. The letter noted the Obama administration’s lack of arms transfers to Taiwan for the past four years, particularly as the PRC’s power rises on the high seas. With Chinese aggression increasing, especially in the South and East China Seas, and Obama’s term drawing to a close the time is right to restate the case for American support of Taiwan, and to chart a wise course of action for invigorating the ROC’s ability to defend itself.
The relationship between U.S. and Taiwan dates to the 1930s, when Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist Kuomintang controlled the mainland. The U.S. supported the Nationalist Chinese in their war against Imperial Japan. The U.S. imposed an embargo on Japan in 1940 because of its invasion of mainland China, and some of the first U.S. combat operations in World War II supported the Nationalists. The U.S. unofficially sponsored an air wing called the American Volunteer Group to support the Nationalists in the summer of 1941. Known as the Flying Tigers, this unit was critical to the Nationalists’ defense in late 1941 and early 1942, and gave the U.S. and its allies critical breathing room to respond to Japanese offensives in the Western Pacific.
After the armistice with Japan, the U.S. drawdown in Asia allowed Mao’s Peoples Liberation Army to drive the nationalists out of China. Thus began the first period of tension between the U.S. and PRC, which the Korean War subsequently sharpened. Deft foreign policy ameliorated relations between the U.S. and PRC, allowing America further to contain the USSR. Despite the U.S.’ recognition of the PRC as the legitimate Chinese government, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 established a de facto embassy on the island, and guaranteed the U.S.’ commitment to Taiwan’s national defense. The Act prompted measures such as President Clinton’s strong naval response to China in 1996 during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis.
Legally, the Taiwan Relations Act remains in effect today. However, two practical reasons exist to justify an American commitment to Taiwan. First, Taiwan’s strategic position at the central hinge of the first island chain gives the U.S. a critical strategic lever if China decides to ratchet up its level of regional confrontation. Second, Taiwan’s commitment to democracy and diplomacy make it a model for other Asian states.
Taiwan sits 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, at a point nearly equidistant from the Peoples Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) East and South Sea Fleets. Because a large amount of Chinese shipping passes through the Taiwan Straits, the island is of vital economic and military importance. Any conflict between the U.S. and China in the Asia-Pacific would see the PRC concentrate its attention on Taiwan military. Moreover, China has not renounced the possibility of using force to subdue Taiwan. Bolstering Taiwan’s naval capabilities, particularly its submarine force, would make the ROC Navy a potent weapon against a much larger PLAN, and an effective deterrent. An effective Taiwanese submarine force would help protect the island against amphibious assault or blockade and conduct other naval operations that would increase both Taiwan and other U.S. allies’ security. Taiwan’s security is critical to the entire network of the U.S.’s Far Eastern alliances and to the U.S.’s future as Pacific power.
Aside from its strategic location, Taiwan has been a regional leader in resolving disputes that have a high potential for conflict. The most recent example of this leadership is Taiwan’s November 5th agreement with the Philippines that resolved a long-standing fishing dispute. The dispute began with the Guang Da Xing incident in 2013, when a Philippine Coast Guard patrol boat opened fire on a Taiwanese fishing vessel, killing one of the fishermen on board. The incident occurred in an area of overlap between the Taiwanese and Filipino exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China has used the same EEZ agreement to justify expansion and aggression throughout the South China Sea.
In contrast, Taiwan immediately pursued diplomatic measures with the Philippines, finally concluding an agreement on the disputed area this past month. The agreement creates a thorough deconfliction and warning mechanism in the disputed zone, and ensures that Taiwan and the Philippines are committed to nonviolent conflict resolution. Although the talks took nearly two years to complete, Taiwan persevered through multiple rounds of negotiations, demonstrating in the end the results of a moderate policy that seeks to resolve conflicts peacefully. Taiwan’s commitment to diplomacy is coupled with its successful democratic transition. The decades-long process of democratization and free market reforms has produced a transparent governmental system that respects individual liberty. Even if a congressional legislation did not commit the U.S. to Taiwan’s security, it deserves American support.
In early November, Taiwanese political officials announced that the White House had agreed to the sale of two Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. However, the president has not submitted this sale to Congress. This continues the freeze of arms sales to Taiwan over the past four years. A reasonable expectation is that America’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific would include greater support for its regional allies. Taiwan’s long-standing relationship with the U.S, its critical strategic position, and its commitment to diplomacy and democracy qualify it as a reliable, important ally with shared political and security goals. The U.S. president and his successor will underscore America’s reliability as an ally, help assure the security of an important democratic state, enhance East Asian security, and that of America’s by supporting Taiwan, in words and actions.