Stop Ignoring Taiwan

With China on the rise, now is the time to renew Washington's relationship with Taipei.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

America’s modern China policy has been extraordinarily successful. Formulated between 1972 and 1982, it’s embodied in the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, which officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as China’s government and articulated U.S. interests in Taiwan’s security. The policy has provided a time-tested framework for the United States to interact with China as it has climbed the development ladder to become the world’s second-largest economy, and it has kept the United States committed to the maintenance of stability across the Taiwan Strait.

With a three-decade demonstrated track record, the adage, "If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it," would seem sound policy advice. Yet policy machinery does require periodic maintenance. America’s relationship with Taiwan, an important component of the United States’ China and Asia-Pacific strategy, needs a tune-up and perhaps some part replacements in the areas of security, trade, and diplomacy.

It’s difficult to overstate the progress in cross-strait relations, and in Taiwan itself, over the last four decades. I first went to Taiwan as a West Point cadet in 1971, and visited its island garrison of Kinmen, close to the mainland. I observed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Taiwanese forces blaring propaganda insults across the narrow body of water that separated them. (At its closest point, Kinmen is less than a mile and a half away from the mainland.) The scene of major air battles between mainland China and Taiwan, Kinmen absorbed nearly half a million PLA artillery shells over 44 days in 1958.

When I returned to Kinmen in March, I stopped by a shop where a local entrepreneur named "Maestro" Wu Tseng-dong fashions knives from the steel of the dormant PLA shells that once blanketed the island.  A large number of his clientele that afternoon were mainland Chinese tourists who were in essence buying back their army’s own expended ordnance.

Taiwan, the world’s 18th largest economy, boasts an impressive history of domestic accomplishments. It is one of very few nations to have transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy and from poverty to prosperity. It now accounts for more trade in goods with the United States than India does. And it provides a model of political reform for China, which even Prime Minister Wen Jiabao admitted is needed when he called for pressing ahead with "both economic structural reform and political structural reform" in March.

All the good news may have led to disinterest in Taiwan in favor of its bigger neighbor across the strait, but there are facets of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship that must be addressed: the bilateral inability to address a dysfunctional arms sale process, Taiwan’s insufficient investment in its own defense, lack of progress on trade caused chiefly by a dispute over the safety of U.S. beef imports, and America’s inadequate official contact with a major Asian power.

The argument that the United States should abandon Taiwan altogether by gradually phasing out arms sales has been convincingly dismissed in these pages and is unlikely to become policy. But the current policy drift bears more subtle costs at precisely the time the United States should be strengthening its existing partnerships in the Asia-Pacific. There is already troubling evidence that U.S. allies in the region are hedging their bets, skeptical that the United States will meet its commitments, and wary of China’s rising military power. American actions toward Taiwan matter to U.S. alliances elsewhere. This is true even beyond the Asia-Pacific as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan amid promises to remain engaged there.

The United States should simplify the inefficient and unpredictable process by which it sells military hardware to Taiwan. Currently, Taiwan’s legislature appropriates funds for weapons programs with no guarantee the United States will approve the sale; conversely, the United States approves a sale with no guarantee that it will eventually transfer the hardware. The four main players — the executive and legislative branches of both the United States and Taiwan — should collaborate and attempt to put in place a more predictable and credible process.

At the same time, the United States should encourage Taiwan to invest more in its own security. President Ma Ying-jeou has promised Taiwan will spend 3 percent of GDP on defense but has taken no meaningful steps toward that goal — Taiwan spent only 2.1 percent of its GDP on defense in 2010. Even while Taiwan’s neighbors are increasing their defense budgets in the face of a rising China, Taiwan — to which China’s military rise poses the most direct threat — appears over-reliant on the United States and is under-investing in its defense.

The U.S.-Taiwan trade relationship is similarly unnecessarily complicated. Beef, although it accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. exports to Taiwan, has become a huge political issue in the bilateral relationship. The controversy originated when Taiwan imposed harsh restrictions on the import of U.S. beef after the discovery of a case of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003. While most restrictions have since been lifted, an additive used in U.S. beef remains the subject of bitterness and popular protest in Taiwan. Partly as a result, the United States and Taiwan have not held high-level bilateral trade talks since 2007. The Taiwanese people debate the issue daily; a growing number are in essence calling Americans bullies for blaming them over the impasse. The United States can do more to reassure Taiwan about the quality of its beef by working collaboratively to develop screening and quarantine procedures. This dispute should no longer overshadow what remains an important trading relationship.

Finally, there is work to do on the diplomatic front. The United States does not recognize Taiwan as a formal state, and Taiwan cannot be called an "ally" of the United States except in the sense of a close friend. Taiwanese Air Force pilots may be U.S.-trained to fly U.S.-made F-16s, but the United States remains committed to the One China Policy. The United States has no embassy in Taipei — though the staff size of its de facto embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan, is roughly equal that of the embassy in Seoul — and sharply restricts high-level official visits. U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had to decline an invitation to Taiwan in 2009 because of his cabinet-level status; I couldn’t return to Taiwan in an official capacity after being promoted to brigadier general, and only did so this year after retiring from military and government service in 2011. Taiwan’s Defense Minister, Kao Hua Chu, has yet to visit the United States after holding the post for two years. The highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in the past decade was Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, who made the trek in late 2011.

The United States’ lack of military-to-military and high-level diplomatic contacts with a key regional player — on whom the Asia-Pacific’s stability in no small part depends — undercuts the purpose of the 2013 Pentagon fiscal priorities announced in January to increase "American commitment" to that that part of the world. The United States should at the very least publicly reexamine this policy in light of its costs. In the short term, the United States should expedite Taiwan’s inclusion, currently under review, in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows travelers from 36 countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa.

The U.S.-Taiwan relationship faces growing risk from complacency on both sides as each increasingly takes the other for granted to focus instead on "getting it right" with mainland China. Now, the United States has a brief window of opportunity to get an important friendship back on track. This fall, the Chinese Communist Party undergoes its first transition of leadership in nearly a decade.  I anticipate the newly chosen Politburo to be more inward-looking and risk-averse over the next two years as it moves to consolidate power. The timing coincides with the House of Representatives’ expected reexamination of Taiwan policy legislation this spring. The U.S. should use the opportunity to correct emerging problems in its relationship with Taiwan, before things break and costly fixes are needed.

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