The Trump administration’s long-awaited National Security Strategy, which was released on December 18, has provoked a litany of praises as well as criticisms. The spectrum of opinions ranged from effusive endorsement as a “first-rate effort filled with ideas that need to be taken seriously,” to constructive criticisms that highlighted the strategy’s shortcomings for its lack of cohesion in certain areas such as trade policy, to visceral rejection out of hand. To be sure, the Trump administration has been challenged by a lack of consistent messaging about its strategy. Yet despite some dismissive comments about the NSS’s importance, it is a document that serves a significant function, as it reflects what scholar Walter Russell Mead calls the “broad principles and elements of consensus on which the administration will base its work.” In one area, the document deserves particular recognition for its much-needed clarity.
For the first time since the White House began producing the National Security Strategy in 1990, during the George H. W. Bush administration, the 2017 NSS mentioned Taiwan specifically by name and clearly reaffirmed the United States defense commitment to Taiwan. The document stated a U.S. intent to “maintain our strong ties with Taiwan in accordance with our ‘One China’ policy, including our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide for Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and deter coercion.” It is a new development for such language to be included in a national-security document of this caliber. However, it bears noting that providing for Taiwan’s defense falls within a long historical pattern of U.S.-Taiwan cooperation, which was most recently reflected in the Trump administration’s decision to approve $1.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan in June 2017. During the previous administration’s eight years, President Obama approved over $10 billion in military equipment for Taiwan, to provide for Taiwan’s defense needs.
The Obama administration’s 2015 NSS made no mention of Taiwan. Its tone towards China was also significantly different than that of the current 2017 NSS. This is unsurprising, given that the Obama administration’s official policy at the time was to maintain “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive” relations with Beijing. The United States’ approach towards China then can be summarized by text within the 2015 NSS: “The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China. We seek to develop a constructive relationship with China that delivers benefits for our two peoples and promotes security and prosperity in Asia and around the world. We seek cooperation on shared regional and global challenges such as climate change, public health, economic growth, and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” However, the 2017 NSS is more clear-eyed about China’s military rise and international behavior. As former senior NSC official Mike Green comments, “There is one element in this NSS that represents a clear departure from the past and may well inform American strategic thinking well into the future: the emphasis on great power competition with China.”
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On its own, as Green puts it, the NSS is “transitional—important, but not the last word on U.S. strategy.” But set against the backdrop of the president’s vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” our view of the Trump administration’s grand strategy snaps into focus. In October, the Trump administration began unveiling the contours of an “Indo-Pacific” strategy to replace former Obama administration’s “pivot/rebalance.” In the lead-up to his whirlwind Asia trip in early November—the longest of all his overseas trip to date—Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, underscored the vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” centered on a quadrilateral relationship between democracies such as India, Japan, Australia and the United States. It’s worth remembering how critics were quick to cast doubt on the viability of the strategy, after President Trump’s visit to Beijing made it appear as if relations between the United States and China were at their best. Then at a public seminar in Washington, DC in late November, the administration’s confirmed nominee to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs stated that the president’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific “suggests . . . that there should be a key role for Taiwan.”
Indeed, this larger context strongly suggests that the Trump administration sees a pivotal role for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific. In the 2017 NSS, Taiwan was discussed in the “military and security” paragraph of the section on “priority actions” in the region. The text preceding the mention of Taiwan explains the U.S. approach to the entire region: “We will maintain a forward military presence capable of deterring and, if necessary, defeating any adversary. We will strengthen our long-standing military relationships and encourage the development of a strong defense network with our allies and partners.”
So what is Taiwan already doing in the region, and how can Taiwan work with the United States to improve security in the Indo-Pacific?
The best starting point for this discussion should be based on the common goals and challenges that officials from the United States, Australia, India and Japan outlined when meeting in Manila on November 12. According to the State Department, “the officials examined ways to achieve common goals and address common challenges in the region, such as: upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, including freedom of navigation and overflight, respect for international law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes; increasing connectivity consistent with international law and standards, based on prudent financing; coordinating on counterterrorism and maritime security efforts in the Indo-Pacific; and further cooperating to curtail the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs and unlawful acts. The quadrilateral partners committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles, and to continue discussions to further strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Rules-Based Order in the Indo-Pacific
Taiwan maintains a geostrategic position that could be valuable to the United States and its partners since Taiwan controls Itu Aba and Pratas in the South China Sea. In a sign of goodwill and de-escalation, Taiwan had downgraded its force presence from stationing Taiwan Marines there, to instead stationing Taiwan’s Coast Guard. Still, the position allows Taiwan to emplace radar and sensors to gain a more accurate situational awareness of the surrounding areas in the South China Sea. This position and these assets would be valuable to the United States and its partners if all sides decide to cooperate further in this regard.
The Indo-Pacific is a large geographical area, and Taiwan could help the United States reinforce freedom of navigation (FON) for the benefit of all countries in the region by enforcing this principle of international law. The United States routinely asserts the right for its military and civilian vessels to travel up to, but outside of twelve nautical miles from a country’s coast. Under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, which the US abides by but has not ratified, “territorial waters” is within these 12 nautical miles (nm) and is therefore off limits; however, 12 nm to 200 nautical miles is considered “exclusive economic zone” and other countries’ militaries and civilian ships and aircraft would be allowed to pass through, as with “international waters” beyond 200 nm.
Taiwan has a capable array of coast guard, naval and air force assets that enable it to conduct such FON operations, and a prudent approach could be for Taiwan to conduct a FON operation immediately before or after a US FON operation--but before the US arrives would be safer so since the United States would be there soon after to help maintain peace and stability in the region.
The nascent Indo-Pacific strategy did not emerge from a strategic vacuum. China’s new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013, represents a pedal-to-the-metal effort to push China’s maritime and land access, thereby connecting China to Europe by way of the South China Sea and Middle East. It does so through “belts,” along with land-transportation access through “roads.” The publicly stated intention for this grand design is for commercial reasons: to open new channels for its goods to flow out. Per China’s claims, it will help others’ goods to flow into China too.
China provides significant infrastructure funding to partner states, often in the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars for a single commercial port project, to take its recent cooperation with São Tomé and Príncipe as an example. The estimated $5 trillion plan, which will be primarily financed by Chinese banks and China-led multilateral financial institutions, covering sixty-five countries—many of which have a less-than-desirable record in good governance—make a potent cocktail for corruption. Moreover, the same channels and ports used to ship goods could be used for security reasons, too, such as refueling and resupply of Chinese naval vessels in what some have called a “string of pearls.” As a detailed study by Nadège Rolland astutely concludes:
“BRI thus serves the Chinese leadership’s vision of a risen China sitting at the heart of a Sinocentric regional order, the essence of Xi’s ‘dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.’ This vision reflects Beijing’s desire to shape Eurasia according to its own worldview and its own unique characteristics. More than a mere list of revamped infrastructure projects, BRI is a grand strategy that advances China’s goal of establishing itself as the preponderant power in Eurasia and a global power second to none.”
Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which aims to enhance economic as well as people-to-people ties with eighteen countries in South and Southeast Asia, including Australia and New Zealand, is aligned with the Manila statement’s broader objectives of “increasing connectivity consistent with international law and standards, based on prudent financing.” As AIT Director Kin Moy noted at a conference on Southeast Asian studies, “Taiwan plays an indispensable role in Asia and has made a tremendous contribution to regional development, including increasing economic prosperity, promoting the rule of law, good governance, and democracy.” While Taiwan upgrades its economic engagement and people-to-people ties with partner countries, it can and will work alongside the United States, Australia, Japan and India to help promote standards of increasing connectivity that are consistent with international law and prudent financing.
Counterterrorism and Maritime Security Efforts
As a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS alongside seventy-three other partners, Taiwan is already contributing humanitarian assistance. In the past, Taiwan’s contribution consisted of, but is not limited to, 350 temporary housing units and $100,000 for refugees in Iraq displaced by ISIS. In January 2017, Taiwan also donated additional funds to help set up mobile hospitals in Iraq. President Tsai committed Taiwan to continue its humanitarian assistance in this effort, as well as to help clear mines once the fighting stops.
Taiwan also has a more direct stake in the fight against terrorism, closer to home. In September 2017, the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that an international criminal network based in Taiwan was a major source of illegal narcotics coming into the archipelago. Specifically, Duterte called out the 14K and United Bamboo Gang, two international criminal enterprises based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively, for smuggling drugs into the Philippines and using the country for shipment to the U.S. market.
Duterte asserted, “The Philippines today is a client state of the Bamboo Triad [United Bamboo], they have taken over the operations,” adding that the cartels “have decided to go international. Philippines is a transshipment of shabu to America and it behooves upon America to work closely with the Republic of the Philippines especially on this serious matter.” The president made a further claim that United Bamboo had given the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf a franchise in the Philippines.
According to the Philippines military, Abu Sayyaf has been involved in the drug trade to fund its terrorist operations—so a franchise could plausibly mean that the terrorist group profits from the criminal network’s illicit activities in the Philippines. Although Abu Sayyaf’s scope of operations has been limited to the Philippines, there are concerns that the group could be supporting terrorist activities by other Islamic State–linked groups in the region.
In the maritime domain, Taiwan can also work with the United States and its partners in many other ways that are sensitive to the politics of the region, such as to play a greater role in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). HA/DR involves military power, since soldiers and equipment that can be used to inflict harm can also be used to recover from a natural disaster. After a hurricane or tsunami deals a blow to infrastructure, military assets are often the only ones able to maneuver through disaster-stricken areas to save survivors. Taiwan has a well-trained and capable military. Many of its naval vessels, such as its Perry-class frigates, were purchased from the United States, so both the United States and Taiwan are keenly familiar with the capabilities of many of its military platforms. Taiwan also operates heavy-lift Black Hawk UH-60M utility helicopters, which are American in origin. Since the United States is aware of the vehicle’s capabilities and limitations—such as helicopter flight-altitude ceilings, helicopter endurance before fuel runs out and so on—it can better incorporate Taiwan’s assets and troops into U.S. plans to help in disaster relief throughout the Indo-Pacific.
However, Taiwan would face the challenge of force projection if it were to expand its freedom-of-navigation operations and HA/DR, since it would require access to military bases to resupply its naval vessels along Southeast Asia and South Asia. Taiwan lacks such military alliance relationships or political influence in many of these countries. The most promising partners are those less intimidated by China’s pressure, such as Vietnam, India, Singapore and many others. The less promising partners are those closer to China, such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Strong U.S. political support would help Taiwan gain access to naval bases in various partner countries. In this way, Washington could help Taiwan to help the United States, its regional partners, and the overall peace and stability of the region.
Curtailing the DPRK’s Nuclear and Missile Programs
North Korea is engaged in a provocative pattern of testing nuclear weapons with increasingly higher yields, and missiles with increasingly greater ranges, with a declared intent of targeting the United States and its partners. In accordance with United Nations sanctions, Taiwan has moved in concert with the United States and its partners to phase out all trade with North Korea. It is worth noting that Taiwan’s trade with North Korea was previously very limited, but has now been eliminated. Last year, Taiwan was North Korea’s fourth-largest trading partner in the world, judging by North Korea’s global exports. Based on 2016 data, North Korea’s top export destination was China, to which it exported $2.6 billion in goods, with India in second, at $87.4 million, and the Philippines third, at $51.8 million. Taiwan was fourth at $12.2 million. In the first half of 2017, Taiwan imported $1.2 million in goods from North Korea and exported $36,000 in goods. According to available data from Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade, as reported to the United Nations Trade Statistics Database, Taiwan’s total trade with North Korea was $559 million, cumulative over the time period from 1989 to mid-2017 (a fraction of Taiwan’s total global trade at $9.6 trillion during the same time period).
Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade indicates that North Korea’s top exports to Taiwan were mineral products, at 73 percent of items, vegetable products, at 7 percent, base metals, at 13 percent, and textiles, at 3 percent. In the opposite direction, Taiwan’s exports to North Korea were composed of 37 percent chemical products, 30 percent textiles, 12 percent machinery, and 3 percent plastic and rubber articles. Taiwan has also cooperated in interdicting contraband trade shipments to North Korea in the past. In 2003, Taiwan acted on a U.S. request to seize 158 barrels of a dual-use phosphorus pentasulfide contraband shipment at the port of Kaohsiung that was bound for North Korea.
Taiwan’s ability to interdict human as well as wildlife trafficking, money-laundering schemes through its banking system and cybercrimes perpetrated by groups with ties to North Korea will both directly and indirectly contribute to curbing the illicit finances that prop up the DPRK and help curb its nuclear and missile programs.
In the final analysis, while Taiwan is not a driver of the Indo-Pacific strategy, it is within the broader context of a changing strategic environment that a pivotal role for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific emerges. Taiwan can be a closer U.S. partner in each of these aspects. It is now up to Taiwan to seize this opportunity and take the initiative.
Russell Hsiao is the executive director and editor-in-chief at the Global Taiwan Institute, a 501(c)(3) think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to Taiwan policy research. David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.