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 “
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,
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.
In the fall of last year, President Ma issued a proposal called the East China Sea Peace Initiative to resolve a crisis over the Senkaku Islands (small islands in the East China Sea claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan, and where there is thought to be significant oil undersea). Ma suggested setting aside the matter of sovereignty while working on the resources issue. The Obama administration gave Ma’s plan tacit support. Bughardtt later said that the affair had been “well-handled” by Taiwan.
Visits by high-ranking U.S. officials to Taiwan and of Taiwan’s leaders to the United States have taken a turn auspicious to Taiwan in recent months. State Department officials have made official trips. In August, Senator Robert Menendez, an important member of Congress and someone close to the Obama administration, paid a visit to Taiwan during which time he spoke in favor of Taiwan’s membership in TPP and the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (another economic agreement that would be beneficial to Taiwan).
Around this time, President Ma returned from a trip abroad, including a stop in the United States, where he met with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ed Royce, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as well as other U.S. leaders. He described the trip as very successful.
Finally, the Obama administration has created the perception that the United States will continue and may even increase arms sales to Taiwan. When President Obama met China’s new president Xi Jinping earlier this year, he said Washington would continue to sell weapons to Taiwan.
Why the turnaround in U.S. Taiwan policy?
Simply put, the reason is America’s “Asian pivot”—a policy Secretary of State Clinton announced in November 2011. The pivot signaled that the United States was going to give more attention to the Asia-Pacific region, the most dynamic area of the world and a region very important to it, after having focused too much on the Middle East.
The pivot also meant that the United States needed to check China’s rise. China had become too strong and too assertive, and America sought to reestablish its position of leadership in Asia and, by extension, the world.
President Obama made a trip to Hawaii and to the Far East to underscore the significance of the pivot. He announced the deployment of U.S. Marines to Australia, which observers said was to offset the growth of China’s military. Obama began to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which didn’t include China.
There was talk that Obama would be remembered as the “Pacific president.” It was even said that the pivot would become the Obama doctrine.
But, since the United States did not have the money to finance a meaningful pivot, the Obama administration had to seek allies. Because the pivot was mainly a strategic concept, this was all the more important.
America hence sought to refurbish ties or build new friendships in Asia. In particular, it appealed to Japan, Southeast Asia, and India to offset China’s rise.
In this scheme, Taiwan was important geopolitically. The center of the pivot was in East Asia, and Taiwan was positioned directly between the two main players, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Taiwan also played a unique role in the eyes of the U.S. Navy. Suao, a naval base on Taiwan’s east coast, allowed submarines to quickly enter deep water where they could remain undetected until they arrived off America’s West coast. The base, if Taiwan were to become part of China, would be invaluable to Beijing and would constitute a potential existential threat to America.
Taiwan was also a prized listening post the United States used to gain intelligence information on China, and its spy personnel were very useful in interpreting various kinds of data. Thus, the American intelligence community advised maintaining good relations with Taiwan.
Viewed from another angle, losing or abandoning Taiwan would dramatically undermine (if not ruin) the pivot, since it would send the message to American friends and allies that the United States was not serious about the new policy and that it intends to cut and run from East Asia.
Taiwan is important to America for still another reason. It is a democracy; in fact, it was one that the United States helped create and nurture. Recently, democratization has been in retreat among developing countries and has even been brought into question in the United States, Europe and Japan. Taiwan’s democracy is doing well and helps the U.S. cause of democracy promotion.
Thus the pivot, or as it has recently become called, a rebalancing policy, has been accompanied by a reappraisal of Taiwan’s importance to the United States and a warming of relations with Taiwan.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty books on China and Taiwan, including the sixth edition of Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? and The KMT Returns to Power, both published in 2012.