Taiwan should be wary of the poisoned chalice of military exchanges with the US

Zhou Bo says China can be expected to react strongly if military exchanges are approved in a US defence budget now being considered, undercutting Sino-US cooperation in other matters and putting Taiwan at risk of Beijing’s retaliation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 November, 2017, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 November, 2017, 7:16pm

The US Senate last month passed the National Defence Authorisation Act for the 2018 financial year. The bill requires the secretary of defence to submit an “assessment of the feasibility and advisability” of ports of call by the US Navy to Kaohsiung or any other suitable port in Taiwan, and the United States receiving ports of call by the Taiwanese navy in Hawaii, Guam and other locations.

This leaves US President Donald Trump in a dilemma: if he approves it, it will certainly destabilise US-China relations; China has already lodged official protests. But if he doesn’t, and even if he vetoes the bill, Congress may still override the decision with a two-thirds vote.

Trump could bypass this “red light” in two ways. One is to convince Capitol Hill to make the wording less legally binding; the other is to approve it, as president Barack Obama did for the 2017 act, but then choose to ignore it.

Almost certainly, he won’t approve it before his upcoming visit to China. Of all things he has learnt since taking office, one thing is sure: for China, everything could stop for the Taiwan issue. When he was president-elect, he took a call from Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, a break with more than 35 years of US policy. China’s response was calm and measured – there was no need to pick a fight with a president-elect – reminding him that the “one China” policy is the political foundation of China-US relations.

Should an American naval ship visit Taiwan, or vice versa, it will be far more consequential than a phone call. China would take it as a revision of the agreement reached when the two countries decided to establish diplomatic ties in 1979. And one of the direct consequences could be on China-US cooperation on the North Korea nuclear issue, which Trump has been more than anxious to discuss with President Xi Jinping.

Tsai should know that the security of Taiwan does not lie in strengthening Taiwan-US relations

China and the US have different approaches towards the North Korean issue, but denuclearisation, which the US stresses, and stability, which China emphasises, are but two sides of the same coin. At the Mar-a-Lago summit, the two leaders spent most of their time on the issue.

Given the worsening situation on the Korean peninsula, it cannot be ruled out that the two leaders might reach a new understanding on the issue. But this would not be possible if Trump falters on the Taiwan issue.

Tsai’s spokesman has expressed thanks following the Senate’s passing of the defence bill. That is probably all he could say. Anyway, the White House has ample room to manoeuvre.

Tsai should know that the security of Taiwan does not lie in strengthening Taiwan-US relations, but, rather, in how much trust mainland China has in Taiwan. Unlike her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, she still dodges acknowledging the “1992 consensus” – an agreement in which both sides recognised that there is only “one China”, though each may have its own interpretation of what that means. The mainland maintains that this acknowledgement is the essential condition for cross-strait relations. There does not appear to be another way out.

The state of cross-strait relations, a year into Tsai ing-wen’s presidency

Taiwan president calls for thaw in ties with mainland China

It is no secret that Taiwan’s economy depends heavily on the mainland. As a result of the “1992 consensus”, Beijing extended its goodwill to Ma and let Taipei join the World Health Assembly as an observer. This has not been the case with Tsai.

At the opening session of the 19th Communist Party congress, Xi warned starkly that China would “never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China”.

Views in Hong Kong and Taiwan about relations with Beijing

Ever since the inception of the Taiwan Relations Act, the US Congress has acted as a countervailing force on government policy towards China and Taiwan. But such a move could backfire.

For example, the defence authorisation act for the financial year 2000 restricted the US military’s exchanges with the Chinese military in 12 sophisticated operational areas, but today the bill looks more like a handicap for the American military, which has found it hard to find out why, without exchanges in these forbidden areas, the People’s Liberation Army still progressed in these areas by leaps and bounds.

Taiwan leader promises to raise defence spending as she praises ‘unprecedented’ friendship with United States

The most recent defence bill could backfire, too. In fact, James Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, pointed out in July that it would be “dangerous” for US naval vessels to visit Taiwan. Such visits, though symbolic, would substantively damage American interests and would not enhance Taiwan’s defence by any means. One probable consequence could see Beijing punishing Tsai by convincing countries that still maintain relations with Taiwan to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing instead. Most of these countries would be more than willing to switch their recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

So, for Taiwan, this is what the latest defence authorisation act amounts to: an olive branch extended by Capitol Hill, but without any olives at all.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the Centre of China-American Defence Relations, Academy of Military Science