Tsai Ing-wen calls for ‘normalisation’ of arms sales as Taiwan, US seek closer military ties

Taiwanese leader tells former US Pacific Fleet commander his visit ‘represents strong partnership between the two sides’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 7:40pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2018, 11:28pm

Taiwan and the United States are seeking to boost their military ties, with the self-ruled island’s President Tsai Ing-wen calling for “normalisation” of US arms sales when she met a former Pacific Fleet commander.

But a Taiwanese lawmaker and observers said any active exchanges with the US would be likely to start in a less sensitive area such as humanitarian relief efforts to avoid provoking Beijing, which has warned Washington against providing military support to Taipei.

Mainland analysts said Tsai was making every attempt to lift the island’s global status, while the US was “playing the Taiwan card”.

“[Mainland] China should be on high alert and be prepared for any moves that challenge its bottom line,” said Yu Keli, an expert on Taiwan issues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

During a meeting with Admiral Scott Swift, who used to head the US Pacific Fleet, in Taipei on Friday, Tsai said Beijing’s repeated military drills near Taiwan were intimidating and that his visit “not only improves mutual military exchanges but also represents the strong partnership between the two sides”.

Tsai also told Swift that the island looked forward to the “normalisation” of US arms sales to Taiwan and that her government wanted more exchanges between the two sides, according to a statement released by Taiwan’s presidential office.

Their meeting came after US President Donald Trump on August 13 signed the US$716 billion National Defence Authorisation Act, which includes provisions calling for improvement of Taiwan’s defence capabilities to counter Beijing’s increasing military muscle and a boost to high-level military exchanges such as expanded cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The dispute between China, Taiwan and the United States has escalated since El Salvador – which was one of Taipei’s few remaining allies – announced on Tuesday it would switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing, the fifth country to do so since Tsai took office in 2016. The White House warned the move would “affect the economic health and security of the entire Americas region”, but Beijing said it was “perfectly justified” and that countries should respect El Salvador’s sovereign decision.

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Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province subject to eventual union, by force if necessary, has meanwhile strongly protested against Washington’s move to pass the defence authorisation act, saying it would only exacerbate cross-strait tensions and hurt US-China relations. Washington does not have official ties with Taipei.

Beijing stepped up pressure against Tsai, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, after she came to power and refused to accept the “one-China” principle.

Taiwanese media reported earlier that the US had been working towards giving Taiwan a greater role in the annual Pacific Partnership humanitarian aid and disaster relief preparedness mission. The island’s National Defence Medical Affairs Bureau director general, Chen Jiann-torng, meanwhile said Taipei should be allowed to participate in international humanitarian efforts.

Observers said that in the face of pressure from Beijing, Taiwan could increase its international and military presence by taking part in international aid missions and exchanges with the US.

“Such cooperation can be expected in the short term,” said Su Tzu-yun, executive director of the strategic and technological centre at Tamkang University in Taipei.

Tsai Shih-ying, a Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker, said if Washington and Taipei did go ahead with such exchanges, they would begin in areas that were less sensitive, such as medical and humanitarian work.

“A section of the National Defence Authorisation Act does mention that the two sides should have expanded cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” said Tsai, who sits on the foreign relations and national defence committee of the legislature.

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Chieh Chung, a research fellow at the National Policy Foundation, said Taiwan should not expect the US to make a “big leap” to start high-level military exchanges because Washington would not want to overly aggravate Beijing. “The US is expected to start in a more ambiguous way, with a gradual warm-up to such exchanges – a step-by-step approach instead of making it high-profile from the outset,” Chieh said.

Tsai would any chance to boost Taiwan’s global presence, especially through military cooperation, according to Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“There’s a group of China hawks in the US government advocating and pushing for petty tricks when it comes to Taiwan, such as allowing it to take part in US-led military or security efforts, whether they’re bilateral or multilateral. It is likely to happen, and it won’t be just an individual case – it’s possible the US will cooperate more with Tsai,” Xin said, giving the example of the US inviting Taiwan to join a maritime rescue drill in the Solomon Islands.

“The US is playing the Taiwan card, which it thinks is a trump card to pressure China,” Xin said.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu