Obama Turns Toward Taiwan

After a cooling period that began in the later Bush administration, U.S.-Taiwanese relations are warming back up.

During the second Bush administration, U.S. relations with Taiwan deteriorated markedly. The main reason was that Washington viewed the Chen Shui-bian government as provoking China for its own political benefit at a time when America was at war against terrorism and focused on conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush administration officials responded by reiterating, often loudly, America's one-China policy, quickly challenging Chen’s statements and actions pushing Taiwan’s full-fledged independence, and making Chen in effect persona non grata in the United States while portraying him as a loose cannon.

America’s unfriendly stance toward Taiwan ended with Chen’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party, losing the legislative election in early 2008 followed by Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang) winning the presidential election two months later.

But Washington’s Taiwan policy did not change in Taiwan’s favor. During the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama did not confirm that America had an obligation to Taiwan. He considered good relations with China vital to changing America’s image around the world.

As president, he moved toward a policy pursued by presidents Nixon and Carter of downgrading relations with Taiwan. President Obama signaled as much when, soon after his election, his administration offered to host talks between the militaries of China and Taiwan. The United States had long promised to never push Taiwan into negotiations with China.

There was further evidence that the Obama administration did not want to maintain good relations with Taiwan. President Obama appointed pro-China advisers (some of whom were hostile toward Taiwan). During his first trip to China, Obama concurred that Taiwan is one of China’s “core interests”—meaning that he understood China should not be expected to relent on is efforts to reunify Taiwan.

Following the president’s lead, top officials in the president’s administration and his supporters in academia and the media began to promote a new Taiwan policy. Obama’s Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Bill Owens, suggested the Taiwan Relations Act (in which Washington had made firm commitments to Taiwan) was “outdated.” A RAND study argued that military trends vis-à-vis Taiwan were in China’s favor and ultimately the United States could not defend Taiwan.

Others suggested that Taiwan was the only real obstacle to better relations with China, that Washington could not cope with its pernicious debt without China’s help, and that America’s protectorate role of Taiwan should end. In 2012, former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called Taiwan an “endangered species.”

It thus appeared that the Obama administration was headed toward of policy of abandoning Taiwan.

In 2012, however, Washington showed signs of a desire for better relations. A number of U.S. moves, though none of them of great consequence alone, clearly signified a warming trend.

In one such action, Washington granted Taiwan passport holders the right to enter the United States and remain for ninety days without a visa. When it became effective in November 2012, only thirty-six nations had this privilege. The move enhanced Taiwan’s international status and was a major convenience to more than three hundred thousand visitors from Taiwan who travelled to America annually.

In July this year, President Obama signed legislation supporting Taiwan’s participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization. While Taiwan’s participation was clearly in accord with efforts to promote air safety and both houses of Congress passed the bill, Obama spoke in favor of Taiwan joining in a more than just passive or perfunctory manner.

The United States meanwhile gave backing to Taiwan to conclude bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs) and there was some serious discussion of an FTA linking the United States and Taiwan. The latter has been talked about for many years, but recently took on a new sense of realty.

Talk followed of Taiwan’s possible membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). While this is not likely to happen soon, it would be very beneficial to Taiwan, since it has been isolated economically—especially since China and ASEAN formed a common market in 2010. Raymond Burghardt, the Obama administration’s top official dealing with Taiwan matters, said in July that the United States would oppose any efforts to exclude Taiwan from TPP.