Taiwan’s call for realistic defences against China may find a sympathetic ear in the Trump White House
Michal Thim says even though Taiwan was not the focus of the latest talks with Beijing, the Trump team is aware that ties with Taipei and defence support are key to peace in the Western Pacific
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just concluded his first visit to China, the first high-level visit by a member of the new American administration.
Should appearances be trusted, meetings with Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) and President Xi Jinping (習近平) proceeded with greater calm than the preceding rhetoric had suggested. Both sides discussed the forthcoming summit between Xi and US President Donald Trump, along with a number of thorny issues including the status of Taiwan, despite North Korea occupying most of the agenda.
Nevertheless, Tillerson’s stop in China was just a messenger job. The real deal will be the Trump-Xi summit tentatively planned to take place at Trump’s Florida retreat of Mar-a-Lago next month.
While Taiwan was not the central focus of Tillerson’s visit, it is likely that Washington’s relations with Taipei will feature prominently in US-China relations in the coming months.
One aspect of it is Beijing’s desire to see Trump affirming a commitment to the one-China principle. However, the Trump administration also needs to address practical steps pertinent to US-Taiwan policy.
To this effect, it is reportedly planning a new Taiwan arms sale that would exceed the value of the package shelved in the last days of the Barack Obama administration. The announcement will not take place until after the Trump-Xi summit, giving both heads of state a chance to discuss the issue behind closed doors first.
Speculation on the arms sales emerged in parallel with the release of the third iteration of the Quadrennial Defence Review by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence, on March 16. This report is due every four years, 10 months after the inauguration of a newly elected president: Tsai Ing-wen took office on May 20 last year.
Because of the alignment of election cycles in Taiwan and the US, the report also provides an opportunity to reflect on bilateral defence ties. While the full text of the review is not yet available, several issues set the tone of the report and the outlook for the next four years for Taiwan’s defence plans and US-Taiwan relations.
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First, Taiwan’s defence planners have a realistic attitude towards the Trump administration. The report notes that Taiwan is entering a situation in which US intentions in the region are uncertain. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his lambasting of US treaty allies as free riders that need to pay more for US security guarantee the creation of uncertainty, despite the subsequent toning down of rhetoric.
Second, Taiwan seeks to establish a new delicate balance between reliance on US arms sales and the Tsai government’s greater emphasis on indigenous weapons production.
The former is not only a way to secure advanced weapons but also the most visible demonstration of a standing US commitment to Taiwan’s security, as dictated by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances of 1982, while the latter will help bridge the gap between what the US plans to make available and what Taiwan needs, as well as boosting Taiwan’s economy.
Among the most prominent projects is a plan to build submarines and a new generation of advanced trainer jets. In the long term, it seeks to refit Taiwan’s navy using indigenously developed ships.
Third, there is a clear intention to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP from the current 2 per cent. Defence minister Feng Shih-kuan expressed hope that Taiwan will reach that target in 2018.
The level of Taiwan’s defence spending has been a frequent target of criticism by the US since 2008. Planned increases are bound to please Trump and his administration as being in line with US demands of other allies. However, Taipei risks much if words are not translated into action. The planned arms sales package may be the first attempt by the US to test the Tsai government’s resolve to spend more on defence.
Fourth, there has been an apparent switch from the passive defence attitude of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s era, to a more active stance that includes an announcement that Taiwan has the capability to strike People’s Liberation Army bases in China.
However, the greater picture is that, despite a different framing of defence strategy, there is an element of continuity. The weapons programmes that are the bedrock of the newly rediscovered active defence attitude have been in place since the 1980s.
Especially since the second half of the previous decade, Taiwan has been busy adjusting its defence posture to better address the growing imbalance in military capabilities with China. The US has not always been pleased with Taiwan’s intention to develop a tactical offensive ability, albeit tailored for defensive purposes on a strategic level. However, ultimately, the programmes proceeded because all parties involved developed a greater appreciation of the asymmetric leverage it provides for the defender.
On Beijing’s side of the strait, the stance on Taiwan has not changed and is not bound to change. Thus, the usual can be expected: heated rhetoric following the announcement of future arms sales that calms down after a while. In the background, Beijing will keep doing what it has been doing since the early 1990s: steadily improving its overall offensive capability with a more recent emphasis on amphibious warfare.
For Taipei, the goal is clear: to closely follow developments in the US, and between Washington and Beijing, and seize every opportunity to maximise its security. This has always been the case. The election of Trump has not altered this reality, though the new US administration is less likely to oppose Taiwan’s individual weapons programmes than its predecessor. Taiwan’s realistic attitude to its defence needs will also find receptive ears in Washington, the Trump’s administration’s broader strategic intent regarding Taiwan notwithstanding.
The status quo keeps changing, but it changes incrementally. The real change cannot be understood by focusing on seemingly grand gestures such as the phone call between Trump and Tsai in December, or Trump’s lip service to the “one-China” policy last month.
It is the steady drifting away by Taiwan from any viable prospect of willing unification with China that matters. That is why the development of US-Taiwan relations and Taiwan’s plan for its defence are significant for keeping the peace in the Western Pacific.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Prague-based think tank, Association for International Affairs, and a member of the Centre for International Maritime Security