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Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Wikimedia Commons

The narrow Taiwan Strait separates the socialist mainland China and the democratic island of Taiwan, both physically and politically.

But the cross-strait relations have never been simply about these two actors. The U.S. has been an intrinsic part of this unresolved diplomatic dilemma since 1949.

However, all three players in this triangular relationship are going through leadership adjustments, which started last year when Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen as its president, followed by Donald Trump becoming president of the U.S. in January.

But what about China? The ruling Communist Party will hold its 19th National Congress later this year, possibly in September or October. The Communist Party is expected to elect new central committee members, which forms the country's top leadership. China's leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to remain president.

In light of these leadership changes, it is time to examine what they might mean for cross-strait relations.

The National Chengchi University in Taiwan and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies — an American think tank — recently held a daylong event called “Cross-Strait Relations Re-examined: Toward a New Normal?” to discuss the new situations affecting the triangular relations. Participants included officials who represent the U.S. in Taiwan, Taiwan's representatives in the U.S., and Taiwan government officials, as well as scholars and researchers.

The History of the China-Taiwan Conflict

Taiwan has been virtually independent since 1949, when the Nationalist government of China was defeated by Chinese Communist forces led by Mao Zedong in the Chinese civil war, which was fought between 1945 to 1949.

At the conclusion of the civil war, the Nationalist forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the island of Taiwan and established its Republic of China government there, still claiming to be the legitimate government of all of China, including the mainland.

The Communist forces, in control of mainland China, established the People's Republic of China, which also claimed to be the legitimate government of China, including the island of Taiwan.

Over the latter half of the 20th century, Taiwan’s economy and democracy saw tremendous development. Robust exports of electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery have contributed to Taiwan’s dynamic economy.

In the “Freedom in the World 2017 Report” by Freedom House, Taiwan scored 91 (even higher than U.S., which rated an 89) for being one of the areas with the most political rights and civil liberties.

But the island has been facing growing isolation from the international community, especially since the United Nations expelled Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China, and gave its seat in the U.N. to mainland China in 1971. Currently, only 20 countries still retain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The U.S. has official diplomatic relations with mainland China, but it keeps robust unofficial ties with the government in Taiwan. Such triangular relations were made possible because of a series of agreements and communiqués U.S. has made with both sides since 1979.

The U.S. acknowledged the People’s Republic of China as the “sole legal government of China,” instead of the Republic of China government in Taiwan, in order to establish official diplomatic relations with the mainland.

But at the same time, the U.S. also ensured the “continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan” through the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

For China, “there's only one China” is a precondition for the U.S.-China diplomatic relationship. But there are significant differences between China version and the U.S. version of its relationship.

It is because of this deliberate ambiguity, the two largest economies in the world were able to move forward from this historical, unsettled dilemma concerning Taiwan.

For the island, the U.S. is its most important protector as well as a vital trade partner. The U.S. has been selling arms to Taiwan so it can modernize and upgrade its defensive power.

Also, the U.S. and Taiwan have become each other’s 10th- and second-largest trading partners, according to James Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The institute serves as the U.S.'s de facto embassy in Taiwan.

“The United States and Taiwan have built a comprehensive, durable, and mutually beneficial partnership, grounded in our shared interests and values. We maintain close economic, security, and people-to-people ties, and share a mutual respect for democracy and human rights. It should be no surprise, then, that the United States considers Taiwan a vital and reliable partner in Asia,” ambassador Moriarty said.

What Is Happening Now

The Trump administration seems to be taking a more-positive approach to its island partner.

Last December, then President-elect Trump placed a phone call to the president of Taiwan. This marked the first known direct contact between the presidents of U.S. and Taiwan since 1979 when the U.S. cut official ties to Taiwan and established relations with China.

Last month, at the risk of damage to the U.S.-China relationship, Trump green-lighted the sale of a $1.4 billion arms package to Taiwan, which was the first U.S. arms sale to the island under the new administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also reaffirmed that the U.S. is “completely committed” to the Taiwan Relations Act and to “fulfilling all of our commitments to Taiwan” under the act.

“I think the most recent decision by the U.S. government for the major arms sale package is necessary and on merit, not some kind of leverages or bargaining chips,” said Stanley Kao, Taiwan's representative in the U.S. “That’s another powerful testimony to this long-lasting friendship and partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan."

“Over the decades, we were able to negotiate because U.S. provides oxygen. The oxygen is giving Taiwan a sense of confidence and security,” said Joanne Chang, a research fellow at Academia Sinica — the national academy of Taiwan, and a panelist at the recent CSIS event. “So we continue and appreciate that U.S. provides oxygen — the Taiwan Relations Act and also continuing to support Taiwan diplomatically and its participation in important international organizations.”

But on the Taiwan side, the past year has been a difficult time for the newly elected President Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party, which defeated the long-ruling Nationalist party, the Kuomintang, in the island's 2016 elections.

Tsai and her party have taken a strong position against Beijing. And although Tsai has repeatedly voiced her intention to keep the status quo of the cross-strait relations after she swore into office, China has been accused of using its international power to punish Taiwan and limit its international participation.

Lin Cheng-yi, deputy minister of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, said in his remark at CSIS:

"With the zero-sum thinking of a world power and an approach of marginalizing and belittling Taiwan, mainland China has viewed the functioning of democracy and pluralistic lifestyles, systems, and values in Taiwan with negative thinking and politicized interpretations. This displays a superficial understanding of pluralism and democracy in Taiwan.

Representative Kao also responded to these obstructions in his remark:

"I think our government will continue to run a steady, a steadfast non-proactive cause and our commitment. And our goodwill remains unchanged. But making no mistake, Taiwan is a full-phase democracy with strong public opinion. We will not bow to pressure and, of course, to be taken for granted.

“At the same time, we are so very proud to see this robust U.S.-Taiwan relation continue to move strong and onward.”

Looking Ahead

Although much remains unknown about what will happen with China's leadership later this year, many experts attending the CSIS conference recommend Taiwan and U.S. remain mutual partners and find ways to strengthen the partnership.

“The U.S. obviously has a responsibility, in my view, to maintain a robust trade dialogue with Taiwan,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, which is a nonprofit organization that fosters trade and business relations between the two countries.

Hammond-Chambers also urges the Trump administration to consider Taiwan as an important partner when tailoring his so-called “fair trade agreements.”

“Taiwan should be on top of the list,” he said.

While Trump's trade representative has reportedly voiced the intention to forge stronger ties with Taiwan, Trump has also been quite outspoken himself about making the future U.S. trade agreements balanced, fair as well as free, as the Los Angeles Times reported.

Taiwan's restrictions on the importation of U.S. beef and pork are long-standing issues on the bargaining table.

For the Taiwan government, Hammond-Chambers also provided suggestions, one of which is to buy more U.S. energy:

“Taiwan purchases oil from Qatar, a leading sponsor of global terror. It purchases its coal from China. This to me is a mistake. I would suggest President Tsai and her government to consider switching those vendors to the United States, a reliable strategic partner, a reliable strategic source of energy and more importantly, it would address the political issues they are wrestling with the Trump’s administration, which is the trade imbalance.”

Echoing Hammond-Chambers, Scott Kennedy, the deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, suggested that Taiwan itself should be more proactive in controlling its own economic fate, with or without furthering trade deals with the U.S.

“Don’t wait for Washington to be ready. Washington has a lot on its plate,” Kennedy said.