With Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election and her Democratic Progress Party (DPP) preserving a parliamentary majority, strong relations with the United States will continue to be a priority for her government, even as relations with China will be tense.
During the campaign, Tsai’s administration frequently cited the strength of US-Taiwan relations as an achievement that justifies a second term. With Tsai’s impressive mandate
, she now has the political capital to remedy US bilateral issues and set important precedents that will outlast her presidency and that of Donald Trump’s, whether he wins a second term.
While the US insists it was neutral in the Taiwan election, the preference for leadership continuity was clear. In addition to congressional action
on pro-Taiwan laws, bills and resolutions, Trump’s administration approved
the sale of US-made tanks last July, soon after the DPP primary concluded and on the same day the Kuomintang (KMT) primary began. Weeks later, the US also approved the sale to Taiwan of F-16V fighter jets.
In December, the American Institute in Taiwan issued a rare advisory about political rallies ahead of two simultaneous events in Kaohsiung: a rally for KMT candidate and Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu
, and an anti-Han rally to remove him
from mayoral office. Some in Taiwan interpreted this as a US warning that Han supporters are violence-prone.
In addition, US officials regularly expressed concern by about foreign (that is to say, Chinese) interference
in the election. It was only in the days before the election that a State Department official acknowledged there was no sign of such activity affecting the vote. Indeed, Tsai’s large victory indicates China had little influence over the vote.
Weeks after his 2016 election, Trump accepted a congratulatory phone call
from Tsai, setting off a frenzy in Taipei over how the call was arranged, and anger in Beijing that it violated the one-China policy
White House adviser Michael Pillsbury later told
he advocated for no more Trump-Tsai phone calls. Still, US-China relations survived the phone call and moved on to disputes over trade
, human rights, the South China Sea
and, more recently, developments in Hong Kong
Taiwan appreciated the congratulatory tweet
from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo post-election, but it is no substitute for a congratulatory phone call from Trump – consistent with the precedent of Tsai’s call to Trump in 2016.
Members of US Congress have repeatedly proposed
that Tsai address Congress, and despite the usual concerns about the impact on US-China relations, such an address is now appropriate. Until it happens, however, Tsai should consider ending the tradition of congressional meetings or telephone calls with congressional leaders when transiting cities outside Washington, as her willingness to accept this substitute makes it easy for US policymakers to refuse a Washington visit.
Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington has publicly called for a senior US cabinet officer to attend Tsai’s inauguration. The US can go further with a visit by President Trump. A refuelling stop in Taipei – should Trump attend the Apec leaders’ meeting
in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in November – is a possibility.
There are precedents for presidential visits to territories with no formal US diplomatic relations, including president Bill Clinton’s visit to Kosovo in 1999, and Trump’s visits to the West Bank in 2017 and North Korea
last year. As with the transitory stops in the US by Taiwan’s president, Air Force One can announce a refuelling stop in Taiwan.
Actions that show political support for Taiwan can proceed separately from the economic and security issues, for which Taiwan must show greater initiative, and which requires Tsai to spend some of her newly acquired political capital.
There is bipartisan support in the US Congress for a free-trade agreement with Taiwan, but Tsai must first do more to address the US goods deficit
– US$15.5 billion in 2018 (although services trade had a US$1.6 billion surplus) – as well as Taiwan’s tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. This includes a ban on US pork containing ractopamine, an additive approved for use in dozens of countries worldwide.
Taiwan also needs to crack down on the repeated violations
of US sanctions on North Korea, and on transnational narcotics trafficking, a problem serious enough for the US Drug Enforcement Administration to have a presence in Taipei.
To complement the mutual legal assistance agreement, Taiwan can propose an extradition treaty with the US to end the problem of wanted criminals in Taiwan fleeing to the US. This might prompt other countries to sign similar agreements with Taiwan, and prevent third countries from extraditing Taiwanese to mainland China in cases of disputed jurisdiction.
Amid growing tensions with Iran, Taiwan should offer to join any multilateral action, as it did with the global coalition against Islamic State. It would give Taiwan’s navy much-needed experience and would simply follow a similar decision by Japan
, which, like Taiwan, is a recent customer for Iranian oil.
Finally, Taiwan must demonstrate a greater commitment to its security, beyond last year’s changes
to its national security laws, especially after Tsai’s campaign played up the China card. Public lethargy and a lack of confidence in the military must be addressed by Taiwan’s political leadership before the US should expand its commitment to Taiwan’s defence, such as by offering a US navy port call to Kaohsiung
After Tsai’s election in 2016, some predicted that Beijing had no desire to turn the screw and threaten stability across the Taiwan Strait. This assessment was, and still is, wrong.
It may be coincidence that Liu He leads a delegation in Washington this week for the signing of the US-China phase-one trade agreement
. But it will certainly detract from media coverage of Tsai’s re-election. Her administration needs to be attuned to how little time it has to strengthen Taiwan-US relations to improve Taiwan’s political and economic security.
Ross Darrell Feingold (@RossFeingold) is a Taipei-based political analyst who advises multinational corporations on political risk in Asia and is host of Storm Media's Taiwan Hashtag programme
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