America Can't Dump Taiwan

Image: Taipei 101. Photo by David Hsieh, CC BY 2.0.

Washington needs to stop double-dealing with this beacon of democracy.

President Bill Clinton set off a political firestorm in Taiwan and the United States [in 1998] when he chose to state what are known as the "three no's" as official U.S. policy toward Taiwan. . . .The words President Clinton chose to use in Shanghai—words used by no previous President—have put the people of Taiwan at a severe disadvantage in their 50-year struggle with the communist government of mainland China.

Stephen J. Yates

This is a delicate and dangerous time for Taiwan—perhaps the most difficult period since the cross-strait crisis in 1995-96 that saw live fire exercises by Beijing, juxtaposed with a “shock and awe” display of American sea power.

This is a delicate time because Taiwan has a new president, Tsai Ing-wen, leading a political party that seeks to distance itself from the mainland and any “One China, Two Systems” policy. Tsai is being carried along by a wave of Taiwanese nationalism that itself is being propelled by a combination of economic stagnation on the island, and the spectacle of a “One China, Two Systems” Hong Kong being ground under Beijing’s authoritarian boot.

This is a dangerous time because a bullying Xi Jinping has responded in the worst possible way to Taiwan’s peaceful transition of presidential power—with a cut-off of diplomatic ties, punishing sanctions on trade and tourism and a steady drumbeat of hostile propaganda. The mood on the island, which I just returned from after extensive talks with government officials, business executives, academics and people on the street, is one of quiet resolve. While there is no wish to provoke Beijing, there is even less desire to bend to its authoritarian will.

6,700 miles away on the U.S. mainland, it is critical there be no missteps in American policy towards Taiwan that might, on the one hand, inflame China or, on the other hand, throw Taiwan—once again—under Beijing’s bus. The inalterable fact here is that American foreign policy towards Taiwan since its formation as a political entity in 1949 has been highly uncertain.

On the one hand, Taiwan has periodically been used by the White House merely as a “bargaining chip” in a game of amoral realpolitik and “realeconomik” to woo and placate mainland China. The key offending presidents here include Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; and some of the key “bargaining chip” documents include both the “three communiqués” and some ill-timed and poorly worded proclamations by Clinton—arguably the biggest sell-out to the People’s Republic of China of any American president in history.

For example, the first “Shanghai Communiqué,” signed February 28, 1972 sealed the Nixon–Kissinger deal to play an “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” China off the Soviet Union. While the communiqué itself did not completely surrender Taiwan to China, it was part of an overall set of initiatives that had begun with Taiwan being ousted from the United Nations and replaced by Beijing in 1971 with little push back from the United States. This was the end of Taiwan as a nation recognized internationally, and the beginning of what has been a long period of increasing isolation.

In a similar vein, President Carter’s 1979 “Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” showcased this neutering trifecta: the end of America’s official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as a nation, the withdrawal of troops from Taiwan soil, and the severing of America’s mutual defense treaty with the island.

As for Bill Clinton, his was a mixed, and ultimately shameful, bag. While he finally sent aircraft carrier strike groups into the Taiwan Strait during the 1995-1996 crisis at the urging of Congress, he had denied the president of Taiwan a visa in 1994.

Most injuriously for an increasingly isolated Taiwan seeking to participate in the international order, Clinton also publicly renounced any support for Taiwan independence in publicly embracing Beijing’s “Three Nos” policy in 1998. In doing so, a “throw-Taiwan-under-the-bus” Clinton stated: “we don't believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement." Said Jim Mann in response to steps even Nixon and Carter wouldn’t take:

When it comes to misleading the American public, it's hard to top the Clinton administration…. Last week, during his stopover in Shanghai, Clinton made what was the most important presidential pronouncement on American policy toward Taiwan in more than 15 years. He gave the imprimatur of the presidency to what are sometimes called, in shorthand, the "3 no's." He said the United States will not support independence for Taiwan; any solution that creates "two Chinas"—or one China and one Taiwan; or its admission to organizations, such as the United Nations.

Of course, two years later, Clinton would heavily lobby to shoehorn China into the World Trade Organization—a move that resulted in a flood of illegally subsidized Chinese products, the closure of over fifty thousand American factories, stagnant wages and a good bit of the economic mess this country is now in.

A Countervailing Congress—and Strong President

As counterpoint to the presidential selling out of Taiwan by Nixon, Carter, Clinton et. al., the island democracy has also been periodically been treated with the kind of dignity and respect it deserves as a beacon of democracy and key strategic ally in Asia. This Janus face of American policy is reflected most completely in two key policy documents.

First, there is the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA)—passed by an angry Congress in strong and stinging rebuke to Jimmy Carter’s Second Communiqué. Of the six main policy points stated in the document, one of the most important is the clear statement that “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

Importantly here, the TRA not only indirectly commits the United States to a defense of Taiwan if Beijing uses kinetic force. The TRA also recognizes “three warfare” tactics like the tourist boycotts and trade embargoes that Beijing is currently inflicting on Taiwan as weapons that constitute “other than peaceful means,” that may justify U.S. intervention.

In addition, the TRA guarantees continued “arms of a defensive character” to Taiwan—although the White House (most recently both Bush and Obama) often tries to skirt this commitment by denying the sale of some of America’s more advanced weapons to Taiwan.

As for the second key document guiding U.S. policy, these are the “Six Assurances” from the desk of the only president since the 1960s who truly understood the concept of peace through strength, Ronald Reagan. The most important of these assurances include that the United States will not “formally recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan,” “pressure Taiwan into negotiations with China,” or “consult with China in advance before making decisions about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.”

Here again, however, kowtowing presidents have often violated these assurances, e.g., Clinton’s undercutting of Taiwan on the sovereignty issue, Obama’s kowtowing signaling behavior to Beijing on the arms sales issue.

Where Do We Now Stand?

With the above observations as background, let me know reflect on what is likely to be the best direction for U.S. policy at this critical juncture and some critical “do’s and “don’t’s.”

On the “don’ts” front, the guiding principle here is that there is no need to unnecessarily poke the Panda. Ergo, American leaders should never refer to Taiwan as a “nation” or “country”—even as they should recognize it as a “democracy” and “political entity,” thereby signaling Taiwan’s de facto, if not de jure, independence. Here, words matter very much indeed—far more to Beijing, and far more in Asia, than American political sensibilities often grasp.

Second, American leaders should never acknowledge the “One China, Two Systems” policy—nor even refer to the “One China” policy again. Here, if one carefully reads documents like the Shanghai Communiqué, there is really no acknowledgement of a “One China,” but rather (and only) the far more subtle acknowledgement that both China and Taiwan agree there is only one China—while having significant disagreements about what that “One China” constitutes.

As noted in the Communiqué: “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Here, again, words matter deeply—which is why Clinton’s behavior in embracing the “Three Nos,” in particular, was so egregious.

Third, it is critical that both Congress and especially the White House stop publicly acknowledging the need to appease China in the consideration of any arm sales to Taiwan. This is not only a violation of Reagan’s Six Assurances. It also demonstrates weakness on the part of America on the Taiwan question even as it undercuts Taiwan.

Some Do’s and Don’t’s

On the “do’s” front, the guiding principle is to continually assure Taiwan and the world of America’s commitment to both the Taiwan Relations Act and Reagan’s Six Assurances. That both the House and Senate recently reaffirmed the TRA by unanimous votes was, for example, extremely welcomed by Taiwan’s leaders at this critical juncture. A similar statement by the White House and the major presidential candidates would likewise be both welcomed and prudent at this time of heightened tensions.

Over the longer term, it would be useful for the number of visits by Congressional members and Cabinet members (other than State and Defense) to increase. This sends the appropriate signal both to Taiwan and other allies in the region, and it can be done without any loss of face to China—although such visits will no doubt be condemned in the Chinese press.

Moreover, these visits need not be merely symbolic. There are very real issues America can help Taiwan with—from its economic development and upping its game in the energy dependence arena to improved education for its military forces and military modernization.

On this note, and at the operational level, one intriguing suggestion I heard repeatedly on the island was to send more private, retired military contractors to the island to help train the troops. This approach would deftly skirt any “red line” involving any U.S. military troops stationed on the island.

More broadly, with the rise of China’s aggression in the East and South China Seas, it is now time for America to more fully commit to the modernization of Taiwan’s defense capabilities. As I have argued in both my Crouching Tiger book and film, maintaining Taiwan as an independent, pro-U.S. ally is absolutely critical for strategically balancing against the rise of an increasingly militaristic China.

Here, I should note that any doubt about this was erased in several lengthy discussions with experts on the island about what it would exactly mean if Beijing controlled MacArthur’s famous “immovable aircraft carrier” in the Pacific. Specifically, it would mean a submarine base on the east side of the island rivaling that of the Yulin naval base at Hainan Island and immediate access to the deep waters of the Pacific.

If China were to take Taiwan, it would also mean other bases that would significantly extend the effective range of China’s air force. None of these developments would provide comfort to the American fleet or forces on Guam—or to our friends in Japan concerned about security along the Ryukyu Island chain that includes Okinawa.

As a further consideration, Taiwan urgently needs to upgrade its defensive capabilities, and Taiwan’s leaders clearly understand that such capabilities must be focused on developing a similar set of “anti-access, area denial” capabilities that China is now using to deter U.S. sea and air power in Asia. One key to any such strategy is the development of a fleet of conventional diesel electric submarines with state of the art air independent propulsion systems. As Seth Cropsey has noted in the National Interest:

According to the Pentagon’s 2014 report on China, if war were to break out Taiwan would face upwards of 34 People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines. A dozen subs connected with advanced sensors and weapons could contest the PLA for control of the waters surrounding Taiwan. No other Taiwan platform could oppose a maritime blockade as effectively. The ability of submarines to act autonomously and stealthily would give Taiwan an effective defense against a real threat. The inability of hostile forces to detect submarines also helps assure the uninterrupted flow of sea-borne commerce. Taiwan is the U.S.’s 10th largest trading partner. A modern, deployable fleet of submarines is critical to the sustained defense of Taiwan.

Thus far, however, Beijing has been very successful in bullying other nations that sell modern subs, e.g., Sweden, Germany and Japan. An alternative strategy is to develop an indigenous submarine production capability. However, this, too, has been thwarted by Beijing’s pressure as countries are similarly unwilling to share blueprints and help Taiwan in developing its submarine industry. It is now time for the United States to help break this embargo. Here, again, as Cropsey notes:

The United States has not constructed a diesel submarine since the late 1950’s, but could provide design engineers. The U.S. could work with Japanese shipbuilders who make excellent submarines. The U.S. could also relax export controls on items needed to build the submarines. Several U.S. defense contractors have solid working relationships with Taiwan. In 2002, when the U.S. Navy discussed options with the RoC Navy (ROCN), General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon all expressed interest in being the prime contractor. All of these companies have maintained interest in Taiwanese defensive abilities. Working with a U.S. company to design an ROCN submarine could set Taiwan on an accelerated path towards development while giving Taiwan control over production and manufacturing.

Another option is to use the blueprints of an existing model and customize it to fit the ROCN’s requirements. Japan is both capable and possibly willing—with the right encouragement—to assist Taiwan in constructing diesel-electric submarines. A transnational industrial cooperation with Japan could help strengthen security partnership between defense ministries that face the same threat.

With the more hawkish Shinzo Abe now at the helm in Japan, and with a United States finally awakening to Beijing’s threat in the Western Pacific, this may indeed be the time to move in this direction. The construction of such a submarine industry would not only help defend Taiwan. It would also create new, high-skilled jobs at robust wage levels—the most critical need of a Taiwan that, like America, has offshored far too much of its industrial base to China.

As a further consideration, Taiwan needs all the American help it can get integrating this island democracy into as many international organizations as possible. Currently, the lack of official “statehood” limits Taiwan’s options, but there are many cases where statehood is not a requirement.

One glaring example is the now current exclusion of Taiwan from the Rim of the Pacific annual military exercise based in Pearl Harbor—even as the People’s Republic of China is allowed to participate. To many in Congress—and the Navy!—this is exactly backwards.

China’s participation provides this increasingly hostile country access to both allied technologies and tactics. Taiwan’s exclusion denies the island a precious opportunity to improve its defensive and coordinating capabilities. It’s dumb and offensive to many in an American navy that is going to bear the brunt of the causalities if and when China starts firing its swarms of anti-ship ballistic missiles and torpedoes at American aircraft carrier strike groups.

Finally, one of the requests I also heard repeatedly during my travels in Taiwan was the need to better integrate Taiwan into the region’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance or “C4ISR” systems. With Taiwan hosting one of the most important radar facilities with respect to deep penetration into the Chinese mainland, this is a “win-win” for the United States and allies like Japan and Australia.

At the end of the time, it’s time for America to fully and firmly recommit to an island that is indeed both a beacon of democracy and critical to the U.S. defense strategy in Asia. The chessboard is now clear on the matter of the dangers posed to the region by a rising China, and we need to stop sacrificing friends like Taiwan to placate what is increasingly morphing from a trading partner and strategic rival into a hostile enemy.

Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine and author of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and a policy advisor for Donald Trump. The views expressed are his own. View his documentary film on Taiwan here. Contact: www.crouchingtiger.net

Image: Taipei 101. Photo by David Hsieh, CC BY 2.0.